Always looking over their shoulders – Federal courts are striking down lifesaving protection for survivors of intimate partner violence

BY: ANGELA YANNELLI (Kentucky Lantern)

Kentucky can do more to protect some of its most vulnerable people, in particular women who are experiencing domestic violence. 

Women deserve the right to live their lives free of violence, free of emotional and physical abuse, and free to carry on their daily activities without wondering if their abusive intimate partner will be waiting in the alley next to their workplace with a loaded gun.

Domestic violence perpetrators use guns to threaten, intimidate and assault their intimate partners as part of their coercive tactics to establish and maintain power and control. And all too often the abuse ends in homicide.

Research clearly demonstrates that domestic violence and guns are a lethal combination. When a male abuser has direct access to a firearm, the likelihood that he will choose to shoot and kill a  female partner increases by more than 1,000%.

Every month, across the United States, an average of 52 women are shot and killed by an intimate partner. Nationally, over half of all intimate partner homicides are committed with a firearm. In Kentucky, that figure goes up to 75%. Three in four domestic violence homicide victims in Kentucky were shot to death.

For years, survivors have been afforded the protection of laws prohibiting the purchase and possession of firearms for those convicted of qualifying misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence and/or who are subject to certain domestic violence protective orders.

However, recently, two federal court rulings struck down one of these lifesaving protections for survivors of intimate partner violence. One of these rulings came from right here in the Eastern District of Kentucky.

In U.S. v. Rahimi, the Federal Fifth Circuit (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi) Court of Appeals ruled that restricting possession of a firearm by someone subject to a domestic violence restraining order is unconstitutional. 

In U.S. v. Combs, the U.S. District Court in Kentucky’s Eastern District granted a motion to dismiss charges of possession of a firearm while subject to a domestic violence order on the same basis.

According to current federal law, a person who is a convicted felon cannot have a firearm. This includes someone who has stolen an item of $1,000 or more. But now a federal ruling in Kentucky allows batterers who are subject to a protective order to buy and possess a firearm even after a state court judge has determined that they committed domestic violence and that it may occur again.

If you were a survivor of domestic violence, would you be more afraid of someone who had shoplifted $1,000 worth of merchandise or your intimate partner who has time and time again pointed a firearm at your head with threats to kill you or your children or who has shot the family pet in front of you?

Kentucky women experience the highest percentage in the nation of sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. An abuser can have access to a gun when we know that an abuser is five times more likely to kill a partner, a child, a family member, or a bystander than one without access to firearms.

This is not okay. We can do better.

The Kentucky Constitution promises “life, liberty, safety, and the pursuit of happiness” to the citizens of our commonwealth. We need to be the state that shows up for women and girls. We need to be the state that invests in bettering the social conditions for all Kentuckians. 

Adequate and nutritious food, safe and affordable housing, quality education and health care, meaningful work and benefits, and available childcare will help protect the well-being of all women and children, including survivors of domestic violence. Giving women the opportunity to be economically secure is the first step.

The next step is giving them the freedom to live and work without the fear of violence and to pursue happiness without having to constantly look over their shoulders.

Angela Yannelli is CEO of the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Top photo: Adobe Stock