RESEARCH AND PRACTICE
Keeping Guns Out of
the Hands of Abusers:
Handgun Purchases and
| Katherine A. Vittes, PhD, and Susan B.
Persons under certain domestic
violence restraining orders are pro-
hibited by federal law from pur-
chasing and possessing a firearm.
We used administrative data from
California to link 794 426 restraining
orders with 1 388 724 handgun pur-
chase applications. We found that re-
strained persons were not a less law-
abiding group in general, but they
appeared to be repeatedly or serially
abusive to intimate partners, and
their handgun purchase rates were
highest after their restraining orders
expired. (Am J Public Health. 2008;
Intimate partner violence results in nearly
2 million injuries and more than 1500 deaths
annually in the United States.1,2 Firearms fig-
ure prominently in these assaults: households
in which intimate partner violence has oc-
curred may be more likely to contain a hand-
gun than households without incidents of vio-
lence,3 intimate partner assaults involving a
firearm are 12 times more likely to result in
death than those involving other weapons or
bodily force,4 firearms are the most common
weapon in intimate partner homicides,1 and
for women, intimate partner violence is more
likely than violence by strangers to result in
injuries and deaths.5
The Violent Crime Control and Law En-
forcement Act prohibits the purchase and
possession of firearms by persons under cer-
tain domestic violence restraining orders.6
(A restraining order, also called a protective
or stay-away order, is a court order that limits
one person’s behavior to protect another.) A
recent ecological study documented a 7%
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RESEARCH AND PRACTICE
reduction in intimate partner homicides in TABLE 1—Handgun Applications During 1998–2005 From California Residents Overall and
states with domestic violence restraining Those Who Came Under a Restraining Order During 2003–2005
order firearm prohibitions.7 However, the
study did not assess how well the laws were Restrained Persons
implemented and enforced, so the full effect Before While After
of the law may not have been evident. California Restraining Restraining Restraining
Residents Totala Order Order in Effect Order Expiration
We examined the history of firearm pur-
chase by individuals under a restraining order Total handgun applications, No. 673409 11106 9694 929 1826
and assessed whether existing purchase and Handgun applications per
possession prohibitions kept firearms out of person, No. (%)
the hands of batterers. 1 434405 (64.5) 7 060 (63.6) 6 411 (66.1) 727 (78.3) 1 296 (71.0)
2 119964 (17.8) 2 147 (19.3) 1 790 (18.5) 114 (12.3) 308 (16.9)
METHODS 3 47746 (7.1) 849 (7.6) 683 (7.1) 44 (4.7) 114 (6.2)
4 23709 (3.5) 393 (3.5) 396 (3.2) 21 (2.3) 38 (2.1)
Data came from 2 statewide databases of 5 13167 (2.0) 198 (1.8) 147 (1.5) 7 (0.8) 29 (1.6)
the California Department of Justice. The Do- 6 8539 (1.3) 121 (1.1) 92 (1.0) 7 (0.8) 16 (0.9)
mestic Violence Restraining Order System is 7 5537 (0.8) 81 (0.7) 65 (0.7) 4 (0.4) 6 (0.3)
a computerized database of all restraining or- 8 3930 (0.6) 58 (0.5) 46 (0.5) 2 (0.2) 6 (0.3)
ders issued in California. Established in 1991, 9 2812 (0.4) 28 (0.3) 23 (0.2) 2 (0.2) 2 (0.1)
the database’s primary purpose is to allow law 10 2170 (0.3) 31 (0.3) 25 (0.3) 0 (0) 2 (0.1)
enforcement to determine whether a person ≥11 11430b (0.8) 140c (1.3) 106c (1.1) 1d (0.1) 9e (0.5)
who applies to purchase a firearm is under a Handguns, total, No. 1388724 21206 17720 1323 2896
restraining order; multiple types of restraining Handguns, mean 2.06 1.91 1.83 1.42 1.59
orders (temporary, emergency, etc.) are in-
Note. Percentages may not sum to 100 because of rounding error.
cluded. All system records from May 2003 a
The number of restrained persons totals to less than the sum of the before, during, and after groups because some
through November 2005 were obtained. restrained persons purchased a handgun more than once.
The Dealer’s Record of Sale is the log of Range: 11–575.
all handgun purchase applications (including d
This person applied to purchase 13 handguns while under a restraining order.
private-party transfers). It does not indicate Range: 11–23.
whether each application resulted in a sale;
thus, it serves as a proxy for purchases and
intent to purchase from a legal source. Be- data, statistical tests associated with samples The handgun purchase patterns of re-
cause almost half of handguns have been ac- are not indicated. strained persons before they received a re-
quired in the previous 5 years,8 approxi- straining order closely resembled those of the
mately half of traced firearms were purchased RESULTS general California population. In each group,
in the previous 6 years,9 and the restraining nearly two thirds applied to buy 1 handgun,
order data began in 2003, we used records As shown in Table 1, 9694 persons ap- 30% applied to purchase 2 to 5, and 4% to
from 1998 to 2005. plied to purchase 17 720 handguns between 5% applied for 6 or more. Currently and pre-
We linked the 794 426 records from the 1998 and 2005 before coming under a re- viously restrained persons applied to purchase
Domestic Violence Restraining Order System straining order during a 31-month period in fewer handguns than did the other 2 groups.
with the 1 388 724 Dealer’s Record of Sale 2003 to 2005; 95% of the applications were We calculated person-time at risk and
files. We calculated descriptive statistics to approved. We estimated, on the basis of pre- found that the rates at which individuals ap-
examine 5 previously unaddressed research vious research about firearm purchases8 and plied and were approved to purchase a hand-
questions: how many handguns should have our own results, that approximately 80 000 gun were highest for California residents over-
been relinquished? How did handgun pur- legally purchased guns should have been re- all, followed by formerly restrained persons,
chases of restrained persons compare with linquished by Californians who came under persons who became restrained, and those
those of the general population? Were re- a restraining order during the study period. currently under a restraining order (Table 2).
strained persons prevented from purchasing a Some unknown portion of the guns likely Denial rates were higher among those who
handgun, as the law intends? What was the were sold, given away, stolen, or otherwise no were under a restraining order at some point
basis for denying handgun purchase applica- longer in the buyer’s possession, and guns in the study period. Denials were highest for
tions of restrained persons? Did patterns of obtained illegally were not taken into ac- currently restrained persons, suggesting that a
handgun purchase change when restraining count; thus, the estimate should be viewed substantial proportion are prohibited from ac-
orders expired? Because we used population solely as an approximation. quiring handguns legally. Restrained persons,
May 2008, Vol 98, No. 5 | American Journal of Public Health Vittes and Sorenson | Peer Reviewed | Research and Practice | 829
RESEARCH AND PRACTICE
TABLE 2—Annual Average (per 100 000 Residents per Year) of California Residents Who These barriers are not unique to 1 state,16,17
Applied to Purchase a Handgun, by Restraining Order Status: 1998–2005 nor are they insurmountable: for example,
although their systems are imperfect, law en-
Applications for forcement agencies impound vehicles and
Handgun Purchase Approvals
seize and store illegal drugs; with adequate
Restrained persons, May 2003–November 2005 resources, similar systems could be instituted
Before restraining order (n = 373 666) 396 358 to seize, receive, and store the guns of per-
While restraining order was in effect (n = 464 958) 124 49 sons under restraining orders. Practices that
After restraining order expiration (n = 328 332) 451 380 may improve compliance yet do not require
California residents (n = 24 014 267) 503 496 substantial resources have been identified.15,18
In particular, ongoing monitoring of relevant
Source. Data are from the State of California, Department of Finance.11,12
databases is important, as is careful thought
Note. Rates take into account each individual’s time at risk (i.e., time during which they could file an application to purchase
a handgun) and account for persons with multiple restraining orders. In addition, rates are for persons 21 years or older, about how to ensure that firearms are relin-
because 21 is the youngest age for legal handgun purchase in California.10 quished by or removed from batterers.
About the Authors
compared with the general population, had a order (approximately 2600/mo in the state At the time of the study, Katherine A. Vittes was with the
higher proportion of denials because of mis- we studied), anecdotal reports suggest that School of Social Policy and Practice, University of Penn-
demeanors and other restraining orders and a few are turned in.14–16 sylvania, Philadelphia. Susan B. Sorenson is with the
School of Social Policy and Practice and the Department
lower proportion because of felony convic- Our preliminary work suggested that only of Criminology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
tions and the state law restricting handgun 7.9% (n = 23) of victims of intimate partner Requests for reprints should be sent to Susan B. Sorenson,
purchase to 1 per month (data not shown). homicide (1.8% of male victims and 9.5% of PhD, School of Social Policy and Practice, University of
Pennsylvania, 3815 Walnut St, Philadelphia, PA 19104-
female victims) in California in 2004 were 6179 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
DISCUSSION protected by a restraining order at the time This article was accepted September 18, 2007.
they were killed. An additional 1.7% of fe-
Persons under a restraining order were less male intimate partner homicide victims had Contributors
K. A. Vittes conducted all analyses, helped interpret the
likely than were others to apply to purchase an expired restraining order (data not shown).
findings, and led the writing. S. B. Sorenson originated,
a handgun. They may have been aware that A firearm was used to kill 48.1% of those secured funding for, and supervised implementation of
they were legally prohibited from doing so; without an active restraining order, 43.5% of the research and helped write and edit the brief.
the prohibition is clearly stated on the re- those with an active restraining order, and
straining order itself. Nonetheless, nearly half 50.0% of those with an expired restraining Acknowledgments
We are grateful to the Joyce Foundation for funding this
of the purchase applications they filed were order. Apparently at least some portion of re-
work and the California Department of Justice for mak-
approved after a background check. This sys- strained persons continued to have guns and ing these data available.
tem shortcoming may have been related to a to use them against their partners. Preliminary findings from the study were presented
at the 134th Annual Meeting of the American Public
lack of procedural specificity, a problem that The ability of domestic violence restraining
Health Association; November 6–8, 2006; Boston, Mass.
may be ameliorated through recent legislation orders to prevent gun-related threats and as- We thank Haikang Shen and Vivian Lew for their
that specified the court as the party responsible saults rests almost entirely in the implementa- help with data preparation, Geoffrey Barnes for his help
with data linkage, and Manisha Joshi for her help with
for entering restraining order information into tion and enforcement of and compliance with
cleaning the data.
the database within 1 business day.13 the associated firearm purchase and posses- For the interested reader, a more-detailed version of
Our findings suggest that restrained per- sion prohibitions. State laws are required, and this brief is available from the authors.
sons were not a less law-abiding group in many states have yet to pass enabling legisla-
general than the overall population of hand- tion.7,14 The passage of legislation to ensure Human Participants Protection
The University of Pennsylvania Social and Behavioral
gun buyers, but a pattern of multiple re- that federal law more fully reaches its poten- Sciences institutional review board reviewed and ap-
straining orders indicated that they repeat- tial to reduce gun-related threats and fatal proved this study.
edly abused the same or a series of intimate and nonfatal injuries by intimate partners is
partners. Persons who came under a re- urgently needed. References
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