Keeping Guns Out of the Hands of Abusers Handgun

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					                                                          RESEARCH AND PRACTICE 

                                                                                            Keeping Guns Out of
                                                                                            the Hands of Abusers:
                                                                                            Handgun Purchases and
                                                                                            Restraining Orders
                                                                                            | Katherine A. Vittes, PhD, and Susan B.
                                                                                              Sorenson, PhD

                                                                                                   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;
                                                                                                98:828–831.        doi:10.2105/AJPH.

                                                                                               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.
                                                               Range: 11–54.
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:
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
straining order were more likely to apply to                              But legislation is not enough. California has                       1. Fox JA, Zawitz MW. Homicide Trends in the United
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by persons who come under a restraining                                restrictions related to domestic violence.15                           Report No. NCJ 181867.

830 | Research and Practice | Peer Reviewed | Vittes and Sorenson                                                                      American Journal of Public Health | May 2008, Vol 98, No. 5
                                                               RESEARCH AND PRACTICE 

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May 2008, Vol 98, No. 5 | American Journal of Public Health                       Vittes and Sorenson | Peer Reviewed | Research and Practice | 831