Domestic Violence and Firearms are a Deadly Combination in Indian Country
Historic Gun Violence Decimated Native Populations
Gun violence has a dark history for Native Americans and Alaska Natives in the United States.
Guns were first introduced to Native Americans around the 1600s, when the weapons arrived with European colonizers. While guns were used against Native people with great frequency, Native peoples also adopted them as a means of hunting and war, marking the beginning of the Native community’s relationship with gun violence that continues in many forms today.
The United States (U.S.) Cavalry was sent to massacre Native people in documented land grabs. Historians call the Bear River Massacre of 1863 the deadliest reported attack on Native Americans by the U.S. military—worse than Sand Creek in 1864, the Marias in 1870 and Wounded Knee in 1890. Some of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history took place in 1890, when representatives of the U.S. government executed as many as 300 Native men, women, and children at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, for practicing Ghost Dancing, a spiritual tradition within Native cultures.
One of the most sinister plots to rob Native Americans of their inherent land rights involving gun violence occurred when the Osage people of Oklahoma became the targets of unscrupulous white people wanting rights to their oil-rich lands. The Osage Indian murders, described as the “Reign of Terror”, was a series of murders of Osage people in Osage County, Oklahoma during the 1910s through the 1930s. The estimated Osage death toll is in the hundreds. The murderers were local white people who had befriended and in many cases married their victims, marking a new era in widespread fatal gun domestic violence in Native communities.
Domestic violence including the use of firearms was introduced through colonization and continues to wreak havoc on Native peoples today. Colonization is the act of domination involving the subjugation of one people to another. Similarly, domestic violence occurs when one partner uses a pattern of abusive behavior to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner. Stemming from a long history of colonization and abuse, Native Americans suffer in greater numbers when it comes to domestic violence; and when it comes to firearms, which can be used as a means to threaten, intimidate, assault or kill a victim of domestic violence, the statistics are alarming.
Femicide and Firearms
At the far end of the spectrum of violence against women is femicide: the murder of a woman, specifically because she is a woman. Statistics show that the likelihood of a woman being murdered increases by 500 percent when her partner owns a gun. In fact, of the total female homicide victims in 2017, 92 percent (1,611 of 1,759) were killed by a male they knew.
The Weapon of Choice in Violence Against Women
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) firearms are the weapon of choice for domestic violence homicides:
In 2015, 928 women were killed by male intimate partners with most being killed with firearms.
- 1 in 3 female murder victims and 1 in 20 male murder victims are killed by intimate partners.
- 35 percent of all women killed by men are killed by intimate partners with guns.
- 1 in 5 homicide victims with temporary protective orders was murdered within two days of obtaining the order; 1 in 3 was murdered within the first month.
- Nearly half of the women killed were killed by someone they were dating.
- Women in the U.S. are 11 times more likely to be murdered with guns than women in other high-income countries.
- Female intimate partners are more likely to be murdered with a firearm than all other means combined.
- According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, American Indian/Alaska Native women have the second-highest homicide rate, after Black women and followed by Hispanic women.
As you can see, the research shows that women are more likely to be killed by an intimate partner (spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, partner, or ex) than by anyone else. Many killings linked to domestic violence occur right after recent breakups or during separations. That’s why leaving an abusive relationship is the most dangerous time for a victim of domestic violence.
Here’s what we know: homicide is a leading cause of death for American Indian and Alaska Native women. We know 4 in 5 – 80 percent [FK(1] of – Native women and men have experienced violence in their lifetime. And we know that half of Native women have been physically abused by an intimate partner.
Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
All the signs are there; Native women are killed by intimate partners every day. It’s glaringly obvious that killings by intimate partners in Indian country plays a huge role in the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). It is hard to ignore that many American Indian and Alaska Native women who experience abuse in their relationships risk being murdered at the hands of their abusive partners.
When it comes to MMIWG, the federal government’s lack of data and attention mystifies the impact of guns and domestic violence. Testimony given by Representative Ruth Buffalo, “Unmasking the Hidden Crisis of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women: Exploring Solutions to End the Cycle of Violence” described a blatant disregard of 5,712 American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls who were reported missing, when only 116 of those cases were logged with the Department of Justice. The inaction by law enforcement and the effort to resolve missing and murdered women and girls spurred the introduction and passage of two bills.
On October 10, 2020, the president signed two bills (Savanna’s Act and Not Invisible[FK(2] Act) that address the MMIWG crisis. Both bills aim to increase transparency, data collection, and coordination efforts between tribes and law enforcement agencies.
Gun Denials Failure to Protect
One can easily assume that to reduce lethal violence against women, it is essential to keep guns away from domestic abusers. The sad truth is gun denials are poorly regulated resulting in a failure to protect.
According to the Center for Gun Policy and Research, a July 2002 federal report on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) found that from 1998-2001, 14 percent of the 200,000 denials for gun purchases generated by NICS were the result of domestic violence misdemeanor convictions. During the same period, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives[FK(3] received almost 3,000 referrals to retrieve firearms sold to individuals who were ineligible to purchase firearms due to a domestic violence misdemeanor. These sales – representing 26 percent of all referrals to retrieve firearms from proscribed users – occurred because authorities did not complete the background check within the maximum time allowed by federal law (3 days). At least a dozen states have laws allowing law enforcement more than the federal 3-day limit to complete the background check.
Protection Order Prohibitions
Under current federal law, certain domestic violence misdemeanants are prohibited from possessing firearms if the victim was:
- the perpetrator’s child (including guardianship);
- a current or former spouse;
- a current or former cohabiting intimate partner;
- a person with whom the offender shares a biological child;
- ‘similarly situated’ to a spouse; or ‘similarly situated’ to a parent or guardian of a child victim.
Certain respondents to final orders of protection are also prohibited from possessing firearms for the duration of the order if:
- the petitioner is a current or former spouse;
- a current or former cohabiting intimate partner;
- a person with whom the respondent shares a biological child;
- the child of the intimate partner; or
- the child of the respondent.
Gaps in Current Law
Current law does not prohibit the following people from possessing firearms:
- People convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence against a current or former dating partner;
- People convicted of misdemeanor stalking;
- Respondents to temporary protective orders.
Gaps in Records
Many people who are legally-prohibited from owning guns are able to purchase or otherwise obtain them, because:
- Local records often do not contain sufficient detail to flag offenders;
- Local and state records are not universally uploaded to federal databases;
- Offenders can purchase firearms at gun shows or from private sellers, thereby bypassing the background check system.
In Indian Country, cross-jurisdictional issues exist between Tribes and the federal government and these issues become even more complicated between Tribes and state governments. Many of the issues stem from court rendered opinions of the intent behind Treaties written in the early 1800s. Although these treaties affirmed Tribal sovereignty and established reservation boundaries aka “Indian Country” they also retained certain fishing, hunting and gathering rights.
Major Crimes Act
When it comes to major crimes committed in Indian Country, the Major Crimes Act of 1885 specifies in which manner to prosecute Natives committing crimes against other Natives on tribal land – which upfront infringes upon Native sovereignty by removing their ability to try and punish serious offenders in Indian Country. Even more concerning is the lack of jurisdiction Tribes have over non-Native perpetrators committing crimes against Native people on Tribal land. In effect, it left a gaping jurisdictional loophole that has resulted in the continued victimization of Native people.
In the Major Crimes Act: Section 1153 of Title 18 grants jurisdiction to federal courts, exclusive of the states, over Indians who commit any of the listed offenses: The original law placed seven major crimes under federal jurisdiction if they were committed by a Native American in Native territory. Those crimes were:
- Assault with intent to kill
Those offenses which are not defined and punished by federal law are to be defined and punished in accordance with the law of the state where the crime was committed.
Prevention Strategies and Models
The effort to define, understand, develop and respond to gun violence with prevention strategies and models is just one of many ways to deter gun violence. The Social-Ecological Model from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) uses a four-level social-ecological model to better understand violence and the effect of potential prevention strategies. This model examines the complex interplay between individual, relationship, community, and societal factors.
The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence is the nation’s oldest gun violence prevention organization that works to reduce and eliminate gun violence through policy development, advocacy, community engagement and training. Visit their website to learn more about how you can take action and help raise awareness.
Policy Changes Needed for Protection
Disarm Prohibited Persons
Current federal law does not require domestic abusers to turn in their firearms once they are convicted of a crime of domestic violence or become subject to a restraining order, allowing abusers to continue to commit crimes or threaten their partners with guns they are prohibited from owning.
Address the Boyfriend and Stalker Loopholes
Expand the prohibition against gun possession for those who commit violence against a dating partner and those who are convicted of a misdemeanor crime of stalking. Nearly half of all intimate partner homicides are committed by dating partners, yet current federal prohibitions against convicted domestic abusers only apply if the partners are or were married, live or have lived together, or have a child in common. Similarly, while stalking is a strong indicator of future violence and many felony stalking charges are pled down to the misdemeanor level, stalking misdemeanants are not currently prohibited from purchasing or possessing guns.
Expand Protections for Victims with Protective Order
Expand the gun prohibition for abusers subject to protective orders to include domestic violence protective orders that cover the period before a hearing (known as “ex parte” orders), provided that they are issued in compliance with due process. The time immediately following the issuance of an ex parte order is the most dangerous for victims of domestic violence, yet current federal law allows abusers to continue to legally purchase and possess firearms.
Notify Law Enforcement When Domestic Abuse Attempts to Purchase Firearm
Require notification of state, local, and tribal law enforcement and prosecutors when a prospective gun purchaser fails a NICS background check due to his or her status as a convicted domestic violence misdemeanant, person subject to a qualifying protective order, or convicted stalking misdemeanant. Law enforcement would also be notified if these individuals received a gun through a default proceed. The attempted purchase of a gun by an abuser is often a sign of escalating violence; law enforcement notification is critical both to remove the gun and ensure the person does not obtain one from other sources.
When an Intimate Partner Has Access to a Firearm
The presence of a gun in an abusive relationship significantly heightens the danger for a victim and anyone can be in serious danger if their abusive partner has a gun. Safety planning can be a life-saving tool if an abusive partner has a gun.
StrongHearts advocates offer personal safety planning, crisis intervention, and referrals to Native-centered service providers. Click on the chat now icon to open a direct message with an advocate or call 1-844-7NATIVE (1-844-762-8483). Advocates are available 24/7.
StrongHearts’ mission is to restore power to Native Americans impacted by domestic, dating and sexual violence by providing a system of safety, sovereignty and support with a vision to return to our traditional lifeways where our relatives are safe, violence is eradicated and sacredness is restored.