My Sister’s Keeper: Working to Reduce Domestic Violence and Gun Violence

Taken from the March/April 2014 issue of the Women's Health Activist Newsletter.

One year later, I went to Washington with a national delegation of victims and survivors of gun violence, and called on Members of Congress to enact common-sense gun violence prevention legislation. We were one of many grassroots groups that traveled to press legislators on this issue. But we brought a unique focus on the connection between domestic violence and gun violence.

You see, I believe my sister was murdered by her husband. They got married only a few months before her death, and there was trouble from the start: panicked calls in the early morning hours when he was kicking down her door, physical threats, and degrading abuse to the point that she felt no one else would ever want her. We talked about her leaving, but it wasn’t that easy. She had no place to go and no way to support herself and had a three-year-old son. We talked about her coming to live with me, but before that could happen, she was found dead.

On average, 46 women in the United States are shot to death each month by a current or former intimate partner.In fact, American women are 11 times more likely to be killed with a gun than women in other developed nations.2

This unacceptable state of affairs is a direct result of our nation’s weak gun laws.

Our Federal laws require you to go through a simple background check, if you buy a gun from a licensed gun dealer. The background check system is designed to ensure that felons, domestic violence offenders, and people who are subject to a protective order cannot purchase a gun. These people are already prohibited by law from buying guns; background checks simply enforce the law at the point of sale. Since 1998, this system has blocked more than 2 million attempted gun sales to prohibited purchasers – 250,000 of them to domestic abusers.3

The background check system is designed not to be an imposition on law-abiding citizens. Ninety-eight percent of Americans live within 10 miles of a gun dealer; the check itself takes less than two minutes; and no records are kept by the Federal government.

But there is a giant loophole.

You can avoid a background check by going through a so-called “private” gun sale — that is, by buying your gun from anyone who isn’t a dealer. This means a domestic abuser can simply find a private seller at a gun show and purchase a gun with no questions asked. Or, he can just go to a website like Armslist.com and buy a gun with a simple click of the mouse.

This absurd gap in the law leaves women and children who are in coercive or abusive relationships exposed to gun violence. We even know exactly how tragic the problem is: 16 states and the District of Columbia require background checks on each and every handgun sale — and 38 percent fewer women are shot to death by their partners in those states.4

While it is too late for my sister, I know it is not too late for the next abused woman or child. And that is why I decided to join Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG). MAIG began in 1996 as a group of 15 mayors and has since grown into a bipartisan coalition of more than 1,000 mayors from across the country. It also includes police chiefs, clergy, and domestic violence advocates like me. In late 2013, MAIG joined forces with Moms Demand Action, and is now the nation’s largest grassroots organization of people committed to reducing gun violence by passing sensible gun laws. (Find out more at www.demandaction.org.)

Before going to Washington, DC, in October, I had never visited a lawmaker and hadn’t really told the story of my sister’s death to anyone outside of family and friends, so I didn’t know what to expect. What I found was a community of individuals who have gone through terrible experiences just like mine.

I met Sarah Engle. Sarah survived a night of horror when her estranged boyfriend broke into her mother’s house, shot and killed her mother, and held Sarah captive, raping her repeatedly through the night and shooting her in the face before she escaped.

I met Christy Salters Martin. Christy is a champion boxer who had appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, who was shot and left for dead by her husband after she told him she was leaving him.5

I met Hollie Ayers. Hollie’s two-year-old son was murdered by his father in March, 2013. Hollie had obtained a protective order against her husband but, during a supervised visit, he shot her, killed their son, and then killed himself.

I met Elvin Daniel. Elvin’s sister Zina was murdered the week before my sister died. Fearing for her safety, Zina had obtained a protective order against her estranged husband. Since a background check would flag the protective order and block a dealer gun sale, her husband took advantage of the loophole in our laws. He went on Armslist.com and met a private seller in the parking lot of a McDonald’s. After purchasing the gun — no questions asked — he went to Zina’s workplace, the Azure Spa in Brookfield, WI where he shot and killed her and two of her coworkers, injured three others, and killed himself.

While tragically shocking, Zina’s story is not an outlier. According to a study carried out by MAIG, the majority of mass shootings in the United States — incidents in which four or more people are killed — are acts of domestic or family violence.6 In fact, the connection between domestic violence and guns has prompted organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, and the Association of Maternal Child Health Programs, among many others, to call for common-sense gun violence prevention legislation.

The policymakers who represent me in Connecticut support legislation that will close the so-called private sale loophole (legislation called Manchin-Toomey amendment in the U.S. Senate and H.R. 1565 in the House).7 A majority of Senators – 55 voted for Manchin-Toomey and leadership has promised to bring the legislation back up for a vote if we can get 5 more votes. In the meantime, H.R. 1565 has 186 cosponsors – Democratic and Republican. If we keep the pressure on, the Members of Congress who haven’t joined the fight will finally be forced to honor the fact that more than 90 percent of Americans support comprehensive background checks. And, they will be forced to honor all of those who died because our gun laws are weak.

Those words, the stories of my fellow travelers, and, most importantly, the memory of my cherished sister will keep me in this fight for however long it takes.

To learn more about the intersection of domestic violence and guns or to become involved, please visit www.demandaction.org

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in United States v. Castleman. Federal law prohibits gun possession by a person convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” When Congress enacted this provision in 1996 (specifically, the “Gun Ban for Individuals Convicted of a Misdemeanor Crime of Domestic Violence” amendment), the intention was to prohibit gun possession by anyoneconvicted of a domestic violence crime, because guns and domestic violence are a lethal combination.  Senator Lautenberg (D-NJ), who sponsored the ban, described the policy as establishing “zero tolerance” for domestic violence.

However, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that James Castleman, an illegal gun trafficker with a history of domestic violence, was not prohibited from possessing guns because his misdemeanor domestic violence conviction did not include “strong and violent physical force.”

If the Supreme Court upholds the Sixth Circuit’s decision, domestic abusers convicted of misdemeanor assault or battery offenses in most, if not all, 50 states will be able to legally possess guns. This means tens of thousands of convicted domestic violence offenders would be able to legally own a gun. This would pose serious risks to victims of domestic violence and the law enforcement officials who try to protect them. Knowing this, chiefs of police of more than 50 major American cities and more than 1,000 Republican, Democratic, and Independent mayors in Mayors Against Illegal Guns joined groups like the Children’s Defense Fund and the National Network to End Domestic Violence in filing amicus briefs urging the Court to reject the Sixth Circuit decision. A ruling is expected this Spring.


Yvonne Crasso is a mother of one, and has dedicated her life to advocating for gun violence prevention so no one has to feel the pain her family felt when her sister was killed.


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References

1. US Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Supplementary Homicide Reports, 2011. Available at http://bit.ly/V1GvFe. Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Supplementary Homicide Report. 2010. Excludes New York due to incomplete data.

2. D. Hemenway and E.G. Richardson, “Homicide, Suicide and Unintentional Firearm Fatality: Comparing the United States with Other High-Income Countries, 2003,” 70 Journal of Trauma 238-41 (2011), available at doi: 10.1097/TA.Ob013e3181dbaddf.

3. Demand Action to End Gun Violence, available at:http://libcloud.s3.amazonaws.com/9/8d/3/1757/Gun_laws_and_violence_again...

4. Demand Action to End Gun Violence, available at:http://libcloud.s3.amazonaws.com/9/a2/3/1982/MAIG__2__Background_checks_...

6. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Analysis of Recent Mass Shootings, September 2013. Available at:  https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.mayorsagainstillegalguns.org/images/Analysis_of_Mass_Shootings.pdf.

7. Moorehead M, A Summary of the Manchin-Toomey Gun Proposal, PolitiFact.com, April 30 2013. Available at: http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2013/apr/30/summary-manchin-toomey-gun-proposal.