Women Lawmakers Reviving Gun Control Efforts

Gun control's weary warriors have been searching for a way to appeal to Republicans and give the issue a pulse in Congress. A couple of Midwestern women Democrats may have found a way to do it, by tying it to domestic violence.

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and Michigan Representative Debbie Dingell are pressing legislation to take guns out of the hands of men who abuse women. On Wednesday, Dingell introduced a bill along with a Republican, Robert Dold of Illinois, mirroring legislation Klobuchar reintroduced earlier this year in targeting those convicted of stalking and abusive dating partners. 

For both women, the issue is personal. As a county prosecutor, Klobuchar helped establish some of the first domestic violence service centers in the nation before coming to Congress. Dingell grew up in a household where domestic violence and guns were a constant worry.

“I don't look at this as a gun bill. I look at this as a domestic violence bill.”

Representative Debbie Dingell

“I understand what a gun in the wrong hands can do and the fear and the anxiety that you live with for a lifetime,” Dingell said in an interview. Dingell's husband, former Representative John Dingell, is a gun owner who was endorsed by the National Rifle Association. “No one should assume where I am on guns,” she said. “This is a very narrow bill.”

Efforts to revive gun control in Congress have been virtually non existent for the past two year. In 2013, Republicans and a handful of Democrats refused to support even modest changes to firearms background check laws in the wake of school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, prompting activists to shift their focus to the state level. It's there, in places like Illinois and South Carolina, that lawmakers have agreed to stiffen penalties and bar those convicted of domestic violence from possessing guns.

Now proponents are trying to recreate that success in Washington by focusing on specific categories of individuals who are at elevated risk of becoming violent. The approach also broadens the traditional gun coalition to women's groups that target domestic violence, like MomsRising and National Network to End Domestic Violence.

“I have not given up hope by any means on these more pragmatic focused approaches,” said Klobuchar, who noted that “you have a state as red as South Carolina doing something on gun violence related to domestic violence.”

Current law bars people convicted of domestic abuse from possessing firearms. At an event to unveil the Dingell-Dold bill on Wednesday, state-level bills were spotlighted that accomplish the same objectives. As of this month, bills addressing domestic abuse and gun violence have been passed or introduced in 23 legislatures, including Oregon, Alabama, and Louisiana.

Advocates for toughening U.S. gun laws say the lesson from the 2013 failure of legislation to expand background checks to Internet sales and gun shows is that comprehensive gun legislation is impossible in the current Congress.

What is possible, they believe, is advancing legislation to focus on specific categories of individuals, including domestic abusers, those on the terrorism watch list and individuals with a mental health condition that poses a threat to the safety of others.

“This is a pretty modest deal on something that's already publicly accepted as what we can do to safeguard our daughters, our sisters,” Dold said in an interview.

Even so, Klobuchar has yet to attract a Republican co-sponsor for her bill, and the Republican champion of the 2013 effort, Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey, said he doesn't know much about it.

The National Rifle Association, which has squashed major gun legislation for two decades, opposes both bills. According to an NRA fact sheet, it will “not stand” for taking away a “fundamental civil right for a misdemeanor conviction.” The bill, the NRA argues, “cynically manipulates emotionally compelling issues such as 'domestic violence' and 'stalking' simply to cast as wide a net as possible for federal firearms prohibitions.”

The domestic violence issue has a powerful correlation to firearms possession, according to a study by the Center for American Progress in Washington. From 2001 to 2012, 6,410 women were murdered in the U.S. by an intimate partner using a gun—more than the total number of U.S. troops killed in action during the entire Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Of all women murdered by intimate partners during this period, 55 percent were killed with guns, and women in the U.S. are 11 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than are women in other high-income countries. Seventy-six percent of women killed with a gun had been stalked in the previous year, Dingell said Wednesday.

After the shootings in Newtown in 2012, Dingell began to share her personal story. “I found my voice a few years ago,” she said Wednesday.

In January, she penned a letter to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder asking him to veto a bill allowing concealed-weapons permits to be issued to individuals with a history of violence. “I will not forget the nights of shouting. The fear. The dread that my brother, my sisters and my parents would die,” Dingell wrote. “I will not forget locking ourselves in closets or hiding places hoping we wouldn't be found. Calling for help, but finding no one willing to help.”

“I had a father that I'm sure loved me but could snap like that,” Dingell said Wednesday. “When a gun was near you didn't know what was going to happen.”

Dingell's younger sister suffered from years of anxiety and eventually committed suicide. “I don't think she ever recovered,” Dingell said Wednesday. “She was always afraid for her life and had anxiety the rest of her life.”

In addition to the recent law in South Carolina, supporters say they are optimistic that the legislation can gain traction because Congress has in the past acknowledged the nexus between guns and domestic violence. In 1994 and 1997, Congress acted to take guns away from domestic abusers and those under restraining orders. Yet Klobuchar, Dingell are Dold are arguing that serious loopholes remain.

“I don't look at this as a gun bill,” said Dingell. “I look at this as a domestic violence bill.”

Bloomberg / Heidi Przybyla / July 22, 2105

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