I recently watched “Lorena,” the Amazon miniseries documenting the relationship of Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt. For those who don’t remember, the Bobbitts became tabloid fodder in 1993 when Lorena cut John’s penis off after enduring years of rape and physical abuse. I found myself thinking about what had changed—and what had not changed—since 1993, and then stopped short (spoiler alert). One of the final scenes shows Bobbitt shooting at targets in the Arizona desert. What on earth was John Wayne Bobbitt doing with a gun?
One of the most important changes to domestic violence law and policy since 1993 involves guns. In 1996, Congress added the Lautenberg Amendment to the federal Gun Control Act. The Lautenberg Amendment prohibits anyone convicted of a domestic violence crime or who is subject to a final protective order from owning or using a firearm. A number of states have enacted laws to supplement Lautenberg, prohibiting the possession of firearms by those under temporary orders and authorizing law enforcement to actively remove guns from those who abuse. As “Lorena” details, John Wayne Bobbitt was convicted of battering a fiancée in 1994 and his third wife in 2003. Even if the gun wasn’t his, John Wayne Bobbitt should not have been using a firearm.
The research tells us why keeping guns out of the hands of those who abuse is so important. Approximately 4.5 million women in the United States have had intimate partners threaten them with guns; nearly a million have had guns used to harm them in some way. Guns are involved in about half of intimate partner homicides. The risk of death is five times greater for victims of violence when their partners have access to firearms. An intimate partner assault involving a gun is twelve times more likely to result in the victim’s death. Women are more likely to be killed by a gun than by all other methods combined. Even when violence is not lethal, offenders who have firearms are more likely to commit serious intimate partner violence and to engage in other dangerous behaviors.
Policymakers recognized the dangers posed by guns when they passed the Lautenberg Amendment. But enforcement of the law has been mixed. Judges routinely fail to ask people applying for restraining orders whether they want their partners to surrender firearms. When people do ask, judges sometimes refuse to enter such conditions. And even when judges grant the orders, police often fail to seize the firearms. The law could go further to protect victims of violence from guns: requiring law enforcement to seize guns at the scene, allowing police to confiscate weapons in plain view, and increasing the types of convictions for which gun ownership is forbidden, for example.
The debate about gun ownership in the United States is contentious, but the research in the context of intimate partner violence is clear: guns make dangerous situations more dangerous, and often deadly. Keeping guns out of the hands of people like John Wayne Bobbitt is just commonsense policy.
Leigh Goodmark is a Professor of Law and Director of the Gender Violence Clinic at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and has represented victims of violence for the last twenty-five years. She is the author of Decriminalizing Domestic Violence: A Balanced Policy Approach to Intimate Partner Violence (University of California Press).