Supreme Court Decision Limits Batterers' Access to Guns
The Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) is pleased to share important news about a recent Supreme Court decision that will enhance the ability of federal prosecutors to keep guns out of the hands of batterers. On March 26, the Court unanimously ruled in United States v. Castleman that federal law makes it a crime for people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence offenses, however minor, to possess guns.
In 1996, Congress enacted 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(9), sometimes called the Lautenberg Amendment, which bars any person convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” from possessing a gun. In passing this law, Congress closed a dangerous loophole in federal gun control laws: those convicted of felonies faced gun ownership prohibitions, but this did not cover most domestic abusers because most domestic violence convictions were for misdemeanor assault and battery. However, federal authorities have faced challenges enforcing this law because federal circuit courts were split on how severe the force used in a domestic violence offense needed to be to qualify as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” under the federal statute.
In Castleman, the Supreme Court resolved this question by issuing a broad interpretation of the term “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence,” holding that convictions involving only “bodily injury” or “offensive touching” could qualify under the statute. Justice Sotomayor, writing for the majority, recognized that “‘[d]omestic violence’ is not merely a type of ‘violence’; it is a term of art encompassing acts that one might not characterize as ‘violent’ in a nondomestic context.” The Court further stated that, while a squeeze of the arm that causes a bruise may not be able to be described as “violence” in every context, “an act of this nature is easy to describe as ‘domestic violence,’ when the accumulation of such acts over time can subject one intimate partner to the other’s control.” With this decision, the Supreme Court confirms what we know all too well – that guns should not be in the hands of perpetrators of domestic violence.
Abusers use guns to control their partners through intimidation, threats, coercion, and injury. But most startling are the statistics we know about domestic violence homicides. We know that women in abusive relationships are six times more likely to be killed when there is a gun in the house. We know that on average three women are killed every day in the United States by a current or former partner, and women killed by their intimate partners are more likely to be killed with a gun than by all other methods combined. We also know that limiting access to guns saves lives – in the states that require a background check with every handgun sale, there are 38% fewer women killed by guns than in states that do not.
We appreciate that the Supreme Court recognized the power and control dynamics that put victims of domestic violence in danger, particularly when coupled with access to guns. It is heartening to read the decision and realize how far our society has moved in taking seriously the issue of domestic violence. For this, we owe our gratitude to those who have labored so hard and long to move public opinion, including those national and state organizations that, in a persuasive amicus brief, urged the Court to adopt a common-sense definition of domestic violence: the National Network to End Domestic Violence, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project, Legal Momentum, and a host of state domestic violence coalitions. We look forward to continuing to work together to make our country a safer place for all victims and survivors.
For more information about domestic violence and firearms, please contact:
Battered Women Behind Bars
Posted: 03/13/2014 6:15 pm EDT
Like most New Yorkers, my family was cooped up in our apartment building during Hurricane Sandy. Many of my neighbors gathered in the front foyer where we allowed our kids to ride tricycles and share toys. Hanging out in the hallway, I spent hours with people I'd never normally have a chance to get to know. Here I first became acquainted with my neighbor Elizabeth Rohrbaugh, a director at MTV.
Rohrbaugh told me she was working on a documentary about women who killed their husbands. I was taken by surprise. Why was this nice Brooklyn mother of a toddler spending her free time with murderers instead of getting manicures? Rohrbaugh immediately made my list as one of the most badass women in Brooklyn.
Her film, The Perfect Victim, tells the story of a lopsided judicial system that put victims of domestic abuse behind bars. The documentary expertly chronicles the stories of three women in Missouri who were beaten, raped, sold and almost murdered by their husbands for years prior to their desperate act of murder.
At the time of their trials, the legal system had little understanding of the Battered Spouse Syndrome and did not allow evidence of ongoing abuse to be presented to the judge and jury. As a result, these women were harshly convicted with life sentences.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Rohrbaugh about the film.
JFB: The subject matter of A Perfect Victim is rather intense and startling. What initially inspired you to make this documentary?
ER: A friend told me about the case of Shirley Lute, the oldest female prisoner in the state of Missouri. Lute was incarcerated for killing her abusive husband. I learned a group of lawyers and law students from the major law schools in Missouri came together to form the Missouri Battered Women's Clemency Coalition. This coalition sought clemency for Shirley Lute, along with 9 other women in similar situations. After years of hard work, they secured clemency for Lute, and after 33 years in prison, she was set free.
The story was fascinating and disturbing. In cases of what seemed like self-defense, how were these women still in prison over 30 years later? And how incredible that busy and overworked students and professors would work tirelessly and without pay to secure their freedom!
I contacted the Clemency Coalition's founding professor, Jane Aiken, who became a strong supporter of the documentary. She showed me the clemency videos that the law students had made. The stories were riveting. What I found fascinating was the misguided public perception of these cases. These women endured domestic abuse for years prior to their crimes. The more layers I pulled back the more interesting the stories became.
JFB: I imagine the road to making a film that deals with the criminal justice system around issues of domestic abuse was filled with obstacles. What were some of the challenges you faced in producing this film?
ER: The roadblocks to making this film were endless, particularly regarding prison and prisoner access. The governor's office was determined to give us the least possible press access to the prisoners -- obviously in hopes that we would give up.
Because of the limited access to the women, it was a challenge to earn their trust and help them understand our intention was to tell the truth about what happened to them. Through the years, the local press vilified these women, portraying them all as savage murderers without any knowledge of the ongoing abuse they suffered. I worked to earn their trust through phone calls and letters, and through their lawyers, who understood our intentions with this film.
JFB: Did the process of making A Perfect Victim shed light on anything for you personally?
ER: Making this film was such an eye-opening experience for me, Reflecting back, I realize how naïve I was at the outset. I learned a great deal about the complexity of marriage, the significance of gender roles and the impact that poverty can have on the outcomes of our justice system. I also learned how difficult it is to make people care about an issue like this. The tremendous dedication of the attorneys and lawmakers to represent and continue to fight for these women kept me inspired and motivated through the long process of making the film.
JFB: What was it like for you personally to document the traumatic narratives of these women? Did the story of their abuse, violent retaliation and harsh penalization take a toll on you? How did you take care of yourself during this process?
ER: Most of my anxiety occurred before I actually began filming. I couldn't wrap my mind around the fact that I was going to be in a prison to meet a person who hadkilled someone. But once I arrived at the prison and met our first subject Carlene, my anxiety dissolved. Carlene was trembling with fear and I realized that this process was not about me. I was asking them to trust me with their traumatic stories and in some ways their future. I needed to be the brave one and use this opportunity to get their story out.
JFB: What would you like your audience to understand after viewing your film?
ER: I would like people to walk away with a better understanding of the criminalization of victims of domestic violence. The system is changing, but not as quickly or effectively, as we would like. Victims of domestic abuse still are judged and misunderstood. These battered women are often left to defend themselves when the system does not work for them in one way or another. If we can learn that domestic violence is not simply an individual problem but a structural and systemic issue, we can begin to make a difference.
JFB: What do you think we can do to help change a system that treats victims of abuse as hardened criminals?
ER: Many, if not all, of the women in this film would have served considerably less time if their crimes happened today. Each case is fraught with massive failures in our justice system, and as a result victims have been locked up for decades. It is essential we develop a greater understanding of the psychology of a woman who kills her abuser.