Firearms compound the tragedy and trauma of domestic violence

Jesse M. Ehrenfeld, MD, MPH , Immediate Past President

Somewhere in our nation, a woman is shot and killed by a current or former intimate partner at least once every 16 hours. About one-third of all women, and one-quarter of all men, experience severe physical abuse due to intimate partner violence.

Your Powerful Ally

The AMA helps physicians build a better future for medicine, advocating in the courts and on the Hill to remove obstacles to patient care and confront today’s greatest health crises.

Abusive partners with access to firearms are five times more likely to kill their victims than those without firearms. Homicide is the leading cause of death during pregnancy and postpartum, and the majority of pregnancy-related homicides involve firearms. While this affects all women, we know that American Indian/Alaska Native, Black and Latina women are disproportionately impacted.

Consider those facts for a moment. Once you do, you will more fully understand why Congress adopted a measure in 1994 to keep firearms out of the hands of people who are the subject of a domestic violence restraining order (DVRO).

The constitutionality of that federal law passed nearly 20 years ago is being challenged in the case of U.S. vs. Rahimi, which will be argued Nov. 7 before the U.S. Supreme Court. The AMA joined the Texas Medical Association and three other professional societies—the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Surgeons and the American Public Health Association—in filing an amicus brief (PDF) arguing that this longstanding law has protected countless people from harassment, abuse and even death from firearms.

This amicus brief is part of the AMA’s decadeslong effort to reduce firearm-related injury and death, a scourge that afflicts our nation to a much greater degree than other highly developed countries. The brief shares firsthand accounts from 17 physicians who have witnessed the devastating injuries and deaths caused by domestic abusers with firearms, as well as the often-lifelong psychological terror inflicted upon victims, their children and others.

The case in question involves Zackey Rahimi, a Texas resident who was placed under a DVRO after a state court determined he had assaulted a woman and threatened to shoot her if she reported the assault. Although this order banned Rahimi from possessing a firearm, he subsequently threatened another woman with a gun, then opened fire in public on five separate occasions, according to court records.

That led to a police search in which firearms were recovered from Rahimi’s home, and he was charged with a violation of this federal law. Rahimi pleaded guilty and was sentenced to prison but later filed an appeal, arguing that the federal law violated his Second Amendment rights. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Rahimi and vacated his conviction on the gun charge.

According to the amicus brief, U.S. vs. Rahimi “is the rare case in which this Court’s decision will directly affect whether countless people, mostly women and children, will live or die. The stakes can hardly be higher.”

Reducing firearm violence

The AMA House of Delegates has adopted dozens of policy recommendations that address firearm injury prevention, and has advanced commonsense measures that seek to make firearm ownership as safe as possible.

These policies have supported the use of trigger locks and secure firearm storage, mandatory waiting periods and background checks for all firearm purchasers, and a ban on the sale and ownership of assault-type weapons like the one used in the mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, on Oct. 25 that claimed 18 lives. The AMA has also supported extreme-risk protection orders to temporarily remove firearms from individuals when there is an imminent risk of harming themselves or others.

In 2018, the AMA adopted policy that supports prohibiting persons who are under domestic violence restraining orders, convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence crimes, or stalking, from possessing or purchasing firearms as well as requiring domestic violence restraining orders to be entered into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The AMA also supports expanding domestic violence restraining orders to include dating partners.

Several of the physicians who shared their experiences in the amicus brief are responsible firearm owners who value the rights granted to all of us under the Second Amendment. But even the current Supreme Court has recognized that those rights are not unlimited.

Nor should they be. Further expanding gun rights to allow people subject to DVROs to possess firearms will necessarily mean more shootings, more trauma, more injuries and more deaths. This provision is not a blanket measure that covers all firearm owners, but a law that applies to a small subset of potentially violent individuals who have been placed under the terms of a DVRO based on a judicial finding.

Data has shown that domestic violence and firearms are a lethal combination. Invalidating this law would be a huge step in the wrong direction, and one that will cost more lives, spread more terror, and significantly increase the threat posed to our patients, our communities, and our nation.