Protecting DV survivors by ensuring firearms are surrendered

October 30, 2023
Sullivan Hall on Seattle U campus exterior with a student walking in front of the building.

Lives can be saved by creating dedicated enforcement units to ensure subjects of court orders to surrender their firearms in domestic violence cases actually follow through, according to a study co-authored by Seattle University School of Law Professor Deirdre Bowen, along with her colleagues with the Firearm Injury Policy and Research Program, and published in the September issue of the journal Criminology & Public Policy.

“Our finding is based on the fact that survivors of domestic violence are at much greater risk of injury or death by firearms,” Bowen said. “If firearms or other dangerous weapons can be removed from the possession of individuals found to have engaged in domestic violence for a civil protection order, or criminally convicted of domestic violence, we can reverse this troubling dynamic.”

Survivors of domestic violence can petition courts to grant protection orders, which limit or ban contact by the subjects of those orders, often family members or partners. The subjects may be ordered to surrender their firearms and dangerous weapons, as long as the order is in effect. Those who have been criminally convicted of domestic violence are already prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms under federal and Washington state law, which is designed to protect survivors.

Unfortunately, many local jurisdictions experience challenges in implementing and enforcing these orders. Compliance has often depended completely on the honor system. “It is often too time- and resource-intensive for short-staffed law enforcement departments to determine if subjects have weapons, find subjects with the weapons, and then confiscate them,” Bowen said.

Bowen was part of a team of colleagues who examined the efficacy of the Regional Domestic Violence Firearms Enforcement Unit within the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, one of the first such units in the country. Created by King County in 2018, the unit is composed of prosecutors, police officers, firearm enforcement advocates, and other personnel.

The team analyzed domestic violence cases from two periods: from 2014 to 2016, before the unit’s creation; and from 2018 to 2020, after the unit began operation.

The year-long study collected data from more than 3,500 cases. They found that just the existence of a dedicated unit led to the issuance of 4.5 times more orders to surrender firearms, signaling an increased awareness among judges that they should grant these orders more regularly. Compliance also improved, as weapons were surrendered 3.3 times more often.

Put another way, the number of subjects who were out of compliance fell from 68.5% to 40% after the unit’s creation, and the number of relinquishment orders increased from 50% of all domestic violence cases to 81%.

What’s more, even if the unit cannot confiscate weapons, their efforts to determine if suspects possess or have access to weapons can assist with safety planning. “It certainly helps petitioners to know about possible guns, but it also helps police, who are often most at risk of death themselves when responding to domestic violence calls,” Bowen said.

Bowen is a member of the Firearm Injury and Policy Research Program, a University of Washington-based team that undertook the study, part of its larger focus to examine the risk of injury from firearms. It is composed of professionals from a variety of disciplines, including law, public health, economics, epidemiology, medicine, sociology, and more. As a lawyer with a doctoral degree in sociology, Bowen helps bridge a gap that exists between the translation of a law to understand its intent and the ultimate effect a law may have on society.

“This work is very personal for me,” she said. “I have a friend whose daughter was a first-grader at Sandy Hook Elementary School on the day when 20 children and six teachers were shot to death by a person with an assault rifle. That has stayed with me and inspired me to focus my career on identifying and studying solutions to gun violence.

“It is abundantly clear from our data that creating a judicial enforcement mechanism increases the safety of survivors and those at risk of domestic violence, because they are less likely to be shot and possibly killed if firearms are verifiably removed,” Bowen continued.

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