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How the US fails domestic violence victims

Brown University political science Professor Wendy J. Schiller and Coastal Carolina University Professor Kaitlin N. Sidorsky have written a book titled “Inequality Across State Lines: How Policymakers Have Failed Domestic Violence Victims in the United States.” Schiller answered questions about the book, which aims to fill a void in political science research about domestic violence.

Q: The book describes an epidemic of domestic violence in the United States. What are the statistics?

Domestic violence is chronically underreported, but from the data we do have available we know that one in four women is a victim of domestic violence. Between 2003 and 2017, nearly 9,500 women were killed as a result of domestic violence and 50 percent of those murders were committed with a gun. It is a well-known fact that the presence of a firearm in a domestic violence situation increases the likelihood of intimate partner homicide by 500 percent.

In addition, nearly 68 percent of all mass shooters killed intimate partners or had a history of domestic violence; the dangers of domestic violence extend well beyond the confines of a single home.


Q: What is the impact of domestic violence on women’s equality in US society?

At least one-quarter of all women will not be able to exert their full role in the economic or political life of this country because they are victims of abuse. Even though there is a federal law -- the Violence Against Women Act -- designed to keep women safer from violence, states are responsible for implementing this law, and consequently women are rendered more or less safe depending on which state they live in.

In the case of women of color, the problem is even worse because of structural racism in the judicial system, which can result in women of color being arrested alongside their intimate partners when they call for help.


Q: The book says the nation has failed to keep women safe from domestic violence at all income levels and across racial and ethnic lines. Why are the current policies ineffective?

The issue of domestic violence is just one of a number of areas where the federal government has enacted major legislation but the implementation of it has been less than effective. State laws, local law enforcement, and local judicial decisions are each essential to successful implementation of laws that help protect victims from their abusers, especially after the victims have come forward to request protection (restraining orders).

The most dangerous time for victims of abuse is when they have decided to leave their partner, and that is frequently where the system fails them.

For example, there was a recent case in Michigan where a woman named Tirany Savage asked a judge for a restraining order against her husband and order his removal from their house. The restraining order also would have prevented him from legally possessing a gun, but the judge required her to file for divorce to get that order of protection, which she did. Just a few days after that, her husband returned to their house and shot her, her mother, her son, and himself. These are tragic but all too common cases in the arena of domestic violence.

Q: What did your research find about the impact of political ideology and gun laws when it comes to domestic violence policies in different states?


There is no question that over the past 30 years, the Republican Party has taken up the National Rifle Association’s goal of limiting or eliminating restrictions on gun ownership. It used to be that the NRA was a powerful interest group that could sway legislators on both sides of the political aisle. Today, the GOP has become more conservative and adopted many of the NRA’s policy positions. Since 1990, we found that in states with unified Republican control of the state government, fewer domestic violence gun laws are enacted.

Q: How is Rhode Island doing when it comes to laws and policies on domestic violence?

The advocacy in Rhode Island in this area has been very strong in the past decade. The combined forces of the coalition against domestic violence and the coalition against gun violence were successful in getting the state legislature and then-governor Gina Raimondo to limit access to guns for individuals who commit misdemeanor domestic violence which complies with federal law, and pass an Emergency Risk Protection Order law, known as a red flag law. The current legislature and Governor Daniel McKee have also enacted additional gun safety legislation by raising the age limit on gun purchases and limiting the capacity of cartridges, which could limit gun violence overall.

This story first appeared in Rhode Map, our free newsletter about Rhode Island that also contains information about local events, links to interesting stories, and more. If you’d like to receive it via e-mail Monday through Friday, you can sign up here.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.