For some, home is the most dangerous place to be. And in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the public message to stay home, while vital to mitigating the spread of COVID-19, has unintended consequences for those living with abusive partners. While we won’t know the true impact of COVID-19 on domestic violence injuries and fatalities for quite some time, there is local data emerging that paints quite a grim picture. Some direct service providers are reporting increases in severity of abuse and frequency of calls, and some states are already reporting increases in domestic violence fatalities.
At the same time that the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading across the country, gun sales, as indicated by the number of background checks run, have surged, spiking to record numbers in 2020. By the end of September, it was reported that the year-to-date sales had already surpassed sales for all of 2019. Many of these buyers were first-time gun owners.
A woman quarantined with an abusive partner is already at increased risk of violence, but data shows that she is more likely to be murdered when the abuser has a gun. Although many stores closed at the beginning of the pandemic, gun stores were deemed “essential businesses” in many states and remained open.
This October marks Domestic Violence Awareness Month in the United States. Domestic violence and gun violence are deeply linked. Over half of all intimate partner homicides are committed with guns. Roughly 4.5 million women in the United States have been threatened with a gun, and almost 1 million women have been shot, or shot at, by an intimate partner. As with many issues, structural racism is also at play: Black and Native American women are at an increased risk for domestic violence and for dying from COVID-19. There is a critical need for community-based, culturally specific organizations that specifically serve communities of color to be a part of the response to these public health crises.
Economic uncertainty only exacerbates domestic violence. Due to the pandemic, U.S. unemployment and overall financial stress is at an all-time high. Research shows that economic instability is a risk factor for domestic violence perpetration, and that domestic violence is more common in households experiencing financial stress. There is also evidence suggesting that domestic violence increases in times of national crisis.
This Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we are calling for legislators and advocates to pass and implement policies that protect victims and survivors from domestic violence, especially amid a global pandemic, economic uncertainty and increases in gun sales. States must ensure that those convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence are prohibited from purchasing and possessing firearms. In addition, people subject to domestic violence protective orders, including temporary orders, should be prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms during the order.
Policymakers have to close the dating partner loophole, ensuring that those convicted of domestic violence against current or former sexual or dating partners, or people subject to protective orders against current or former partners of the petitioner, are prohibited from purchasing or owning firearms. The same policy should apply to people convicted of a misdemeanor crime of stalking. In addition, funding should be provided to states and localities to develop and implement temporary firearm removal procedures in domestic violence situations.
Finally, inconsistent — or even nonexistent — data stifles policy solutions. Collection and reporting of data related to domestic violence incidents, including fatalities and the role of firearms, is inconsistent between states. While the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both have databases that track homicides, states are not required to report these statistics to the federal government and the data they report is often incomplete. Congress must establish standardized definitions and require states to collect and report data about domestic violence incidents, including fatalities and the role of firearms, on a regular basis.
The increase in gun sales alongside conditions that could increase incidence of domestic violence is a frightening combination. When we add widespread financial strain and a pandemic forcing Americans to stay at home, the situation becomes even more dangerous. As we continue to face this unprecedented and uncertain time, it is important to prioritize culturally competent domestic violence prevention policies and programs. To save lives across the United States, we must act with speed and courage.
Lisa Geller is a policy analyst and Lauren Footman is the director of outreach and equity for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence.
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