Six bronze bullets on top of a reflective surface, two fired and four not. Image by MasterTux from Pixabay is licensed under Pixabay license.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more women are killed by their current or former partners than by strangers, and the millions of women in physically abusive relationships are at even greater risk. Because most intimate partner homicides are committed with guns, many states have implemented firearm restrictions on persons convicted of domestic abuse.

Victims of domestic violence often seek emergency restraining orders to help protect themselves and their children. In some states, judges are legally required to order the confiscation of firearms when restraining order petitions contain allegations of physical abuse or threats. These statutes are designed to prevent perpetrators from escalating violence against their current or former partner because firearms are commonly used in intimate partner murders. Research has even shown that this mandatory firearm confiscation lowers homicide risk. Given the importance of mandatory confiscation, judges should be ordering the removal of firearms, right?

Not exactly. Recent research from Julie Kafka, Kathryn Moracco, Deanna Williams, and Claire Hoffman found that judges in North Carolina failed to order firearm confiscation in 61% of protective orders, even when physical violence and/or threats to kill were present. This runs against North Carolina’s mandatory firearm confiscation law in emergency restraining order hearings, and the researchers observed judges failing to verbally announce firearm restrictions during hearings in two-thirds of cases. In other words, judges pick and choose when to follow the law and enforce firearm restrictions for people accused of domestic violence; in most cases, they do not order confiscation. 

This research shows that leaving the confiscation of firearms up to judges maintains access to firearms even after allegations of physical abuse and threats. Kafka and colleagues suggest making confiscation the default or removing the “open-to-interpretation” language in the law. The researchers suggest that better training for judges, monitoring the whereabouts of guns in households with a history of intimate partner violence, and greater domestic rights education for victims could prevent further tragedy.