Guns (photo: Mayor's Office)
2020 has been a devastating year for people across the globe, especially right here in New York City. The isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly dangerous for people in homes where there is intimate partner violence — an epidemic that has only grown worse this year. Although there have been fewer reported domestic violence crimes in New York City this year than previous years, advocacy groups and survivor hotlines have been flooded with more calls than any time in history. The truth is that domestic violence incidents aren’t actually declining, they are going unreported — a dangerous trend that is leaving many survivors with fewer places to turn as they remain trapped at home with their abusers.
Intimate partner violence is even more deadly if the abuser possesses a gun. Thankfully, a recently-enacted provision of the New York Family Court Act offers a solution to some of the most dire cases, but only if advocates, lawyers, and judges educate the public and actively use this provision to better protect at-risk families.
Each month, an average of 53 women across the country are shot and killed by a partner. Between 2010 and 2017, intimate partner gun homicides shot up by 26% in the United States. For Black women in particular, the reality is even more dire. A 2017 CDC study found that Black women are twice as likely as white women to be fatally shot by their partners. Domestic violence may not be a uniquely American crisis, but in many ways gun violence in the home is, and the situation is deadly.
New York has long had some of the most comprehensive gun laws in the United States, and as of this November these protections finally have the possibility to extend to domestic violence survivors in an under-reported and little-acknowledged legal change.
Now, when a family member knows that there is a gun in the home and seeks an Order of Protection from our Family Courts or Criminal Courts, the court can authorize a search for a gun. In the past year alone, prior to this important addition to the law, the New York City Sheriff served nine such orders of protection from other states, resulting in the removal of eight guns from New York City homes.
When law enforcement serves such orders of protection on the abusive person, the search warrants provision of the order of protection — based on probable cause like any other search warrant — permits law enforcement to inquire about whether there is a gun in the home, and ultimately, if necessary, to search the home and remove the gun(s). But this provision only works if victims both know that it is an option, and feel comfortable disclosing that there is a gun in the home — no small task for someone dealing with the trauma of an abusive home.
As a former assistant district attorney, I’ve responded to heartbreaking scenes of domestic violence, gun violence, and murder. I’ve worked alongside survivors to seek justice, accountability, and safety for themselves and their families. I have found time and again that domestic violence victims are often uncomfortable or skeptical towards the courts system, and that this can be compounded when English may not be their first language, or they may fear immigration or other consequences to themselves or their family.
For such victims, disclosing information about abuse is incredibly challenging, and very few victims are likely to volunteer that there is a gun in the home without prompting. To more fully protect families, judges, lawyers, and advocates should be educated about this new law, and should take a trauma-informed and culturally-sensitive approach to inquiring specifically in every case about the presence of guns in the home.
Policies like this save lives and provide an added measure of safety for survivors of domestic abuse. Joining other states in authorizing judges to issue search warrants as part of orders of protection and allowing law enforcement to remove guns from the homes of those who have an order of protection against them was common sense and long overdue. As we close 2020 and welcome a new year, judges, lawyers, and domestic violence advocates finally have an overdue tool to get guns out of the hands of people who would turn them against their loved ones.
But we cannot expect victims to ask for this provision alone. They deserve our help. Let’s work together to get guns out of abusive households — people’s lives depend on it.
Lucy Lang is a former Manhattan assistant district attorney, former Director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College, and is a Democratic candidate for Manhattan District Attorney. On Twitter @LucyLangNYC.