California law mandates judges to include a firearm surrender provision in nonemergency domestic violence restraining orders. New York law requires judges to order firearm surrender if the incident prompting the protective order involved a firearm assault and allows (but does not require) judges to order firearm surrender if they deem a victim is at substantial risk of future gun assault. Yet in our sample, IPV victims from New York City and Los Angeles reported that judges issued orders for firearm surrender in only 26% of the cases involving protective orders against armed abusers. In some cases, victims reported that judges did not act despite their explicit request to have firearms removed.
There are many reasons why a judge might not order an IPV offender to surrender his firearms. Although New York and California laws have relatively broad inclusion criteria, some cases will not meet the legal requirements for judges to order firearm removal. In New York, judges have some discretion about when to order firearm removal in cases where guns were not part of the abuse. A recent study of court records in California found that about half of all PODV in the state included an order for the respondent to surrender any firearms in his possession.10
Forty percent of our sample was drawn from Los Angeles County, and 34% of those respondents reported that the judge had ordered their abusers to surrender firearms.
The difference between the findings of this study and those found in the study of California court records10
could be partly attributable to our relatively small sample drawn from a single jurisdiction in California compared with the prior analysis of the entire state. But our findings are more likely due to the different measures used in the two studies and to slightly different research questions being examined. In responding to interview questions about whether the judge ordered firearm surrender or confiscation, some respondents may focus on what a judge said at the hearing or what they recall about the protective order rather than on what was written in the order. Firearm surrender provisions for restraining orders in California were a standard condition that judges could apply by checking a box on the order.8
(These check boxes have since been eliminated, and firearm prohibition language is now a standard part of all California's PODV forms.) However, judges may not verbalize every condition of protective orders when explaining their decisions; thus, victims may not always know when judges check a box indicating that the abuser is not permitted to own firearms unless the victim carefully reads the protective order form itself.
Sorenson and Shen10
examined how commonly judges checked defendant firearm prohibition boxes on the protection order forms. These designations have important legal consequences; however, legal restrictions concerning an abuser's possession of firearms may not result in the intended response if the judge does not verbally order the abuser to surrender his firearms. This is what was found in a recent evaluation of a new North Carolina law designed to mandate judicial actions to disarm PODV defendants.12
Furthermore, because law enforcement agencies often do not take proactive steps to ensure that abusers have relinquished their firearms,9,11
victims' knowledge of their abusers' firearms restrictions contained in orders of protection is necessary if victims or their advocates want to press law enforcement agencies to confiscate abusers' firearms.
We found that fewer than half of the victims who obtained protective orders against armed abusers affirmatively asked judges to order their abusers' firearms removed. There are several reasons why a victim might not request gun removal from her abuser. The circumstances of some of the cases may not have permitted court action to remove firearms. In addition, some victims may not feel it necessary to request firearm removal if they believe judges will take such action on their own. Some IPV victims believe removing guns from their abusers will increase the likelihood and severity of retaliation, or they think that such action is futile because it is relatively easy for their abusers to obtain another gun.9
Despite information contained on the PODV form itself, some women may have been unaware that judges had the power to order firearm removal from their abuser. Further research is needed that explores victims' knowledge and beliefs concerning abusers' access to firearms and strategies for disarming them.
Relatively few (12%) participants seeking orders of protection against abusers who owned a firearm believed that the court order resulted in the removal of all of the abusers' firearms. Because few victims in our study continued to live with their abusers, they may not know for certain if their abuser surrendered his firearms to authorities. Of course, victims who are threatened or abused with a firearm while a protective order is in effect need not be living with their abuser to accurately report on the failed implementation of the firearm surrender provision. In addition, our results indicate that many victims may simply be uncertain about whether guns were removed, an uncertainty that can profoundly affect women's safety and sense of well-being. Despite these caveats, our findings indicating significant gaps in the enforcement of firearms surrender conditions of domestic violence restraining orders is consistent with other studies using other types of data9,11
and similar to a recent study that also used data from interviews of victims.12
Changes to existing firearm removal policies could facilitate more effective disarming of batterers. For example, states could follow California's approach and require, rather than merely allow, judges to order firearm removal from IPV offenders. Victim reports of judicial orders for firearm removal were somewhat more common among women living in Los Angeles, where state law requires judges to include firearms prohibitions in court PODVs than among women living in New York City, which only requires firearm prohibitions in orders of protection in more narrow circumstances. These differences in victim's perceptions by state (although not statistically significant in our relatively small sample) may reflect actual differences in judicial use of this removal authority. In states that allow judicial discretion for ordering firearm removal,8
it may be important to educate judges about the substantial increase in the risk of lethal violence when abusers have access to firearms.5
This conclusion is reinforced by our data indicating that victims reported that judges were not more likely to order removal where there had been a prior threat with a weapon against the victim.
IPV victims and their advocates have a role and an interest in improving the implementation of firearm restrictions in protective orders. Victims and advocates can encourage law enforcement to follow up when firearms surrender orders are issued to enhance compliance with the orders and attempt to hold law enforcement accountable if they do not act to ensure that defendants have been disarmed. Medical practitioners screening women for IPV should also be aware of the risks associated with an abuser's firearm possession and legal options available to women to remove that firearm.
This study is subject to certain limitations. First, our data are based on a relatively small sample drawn from two urban areas. Whether the findings are generalizable to other settings is unknown; however, our findings are consistent with those of a similar study in North Carolina.12
Differences in sample recruitment between New York and Los Angeles may also have influenced some study findings. Second, our data are based on victims' self-report and, as with all such data, are subject to recall biases. Some victims may not know of or be able to recall all restrictions imposed by the orders including firearm restrictions. As discussed, however, what victims believe to be the case may be critically important. Nevertheless, further research is needed that combines victim report of abuser firearm ownership with police or court records that show evidence of the surrender or confiscation of firearms from proscribed IPV offenders. Third, we did not always have data that definitively indicated whether an abuser was in possession of a firearm when a protective order was issued. Some abusers had multiple arrests for IPV and had been subject to multiple protective orders, some temporary and some long-term. We did not ask about the timing of each of these events, which may have taken place over many years, and our data indicate that abusers' firearm ownership can change over time. Finally, some abusers may have sold their firearms to comply with the PODV; some women may not have appreciated this distinction in responding to our interview questions about surrender of firearms to law enforcement.
Despite these limitations, this study fills a void in the literature about the implementation of laws designed to disarm IPV offenders. Our and others' findings suggest that the courts and law enforcement agencies are failing some women. Although California and New York laws mandating or permitting judges to order firearm removal from IPV offenders are more comprehensive than most states' laws of this type, our findings suggest that there are important gaps in enforcement that should be closed to protect IPV victims from severe injury and death by armed abusers. Enforcement might also be improved if efforts were made to be sure that women know the firearm-related provision of their protective orders and if they have, in fact, been implemented.