Read Part I here
[reading time: 14 minutes]
Lakisha Briggs’s partner had just completed a prison sentence for a previous fight when he showed up at her doorstep in the summer of 2012. It wasn’t a welcoming surprise for the nursing assistant. She was terrified, fearing first and foremost for the safety of her 3-year-old daughter. She wanted to send Mr. Bennett away but, as she told the New York Times a year later, had “no choice but to let him stay.” Police officers had told the young woman that she was no longer allowed to call them – a shocking statement in and of itself. If the police were forced to respond to another incident at her address, the mid-thirties woman would face eviction. The working mother was trapped in a misogynistic legal system, which has grown rapidly on the local level over the last quarter-century.
Proponents argue these laws create “crime-free housing” zones, which create a safer community. The “nuisance laws,” which, according to one study, have popped up in 44 states, enable towns to evict difficult residents without any formal legal process. The ordinances date back to Reagan’s America of the 1980s. Today they are no longer only targeting drug dealers and gang members. Their victims are often survivors of domestic abuse. A study by Harvard’s Matthew Desmond and Columbia University’s Nicol Valdez found nearly 1 in 3 “nuisance” cases in the city of Milwaukee involved domestic violence. Desmond, a sociologist, calls the ordinances, which do not take a person’s circumstances into account, a “[threat to] citizens’ fundamental right to call on the police for help.” Repeated 911 calls to a particular address result in city officials pressuring landlords to evict the disruptive tenant. It, therefore, dramatically shifts the balance of power in an abusive relationship. Data from a 2016 study clearly shows the laws increase a victim’s vulnerability to violence.
That’s what happened to Ms Briggs. Aware his girlfriend would face eviction if she dared call 911, her drunk partner used the new power dynamic to his advantage, even taunting her that summer. The abuse dramatically escalated. At one point, Bennett grabbed a broken ashtray and went after Ms Briggs. With a gash on her head and a four-inch stab wound in her neck, the young woman soon fought for her life. But first, she was forced to beg her neighbour, who had witnessed the fight, not to call for help. The second she passed out, the neighbour dialled 911. Police arrested Mr. Bennett, who later got convicted to up to 2 years in prison. A helicopter transported Ms Briggs to a hospital in Philadelphia for emergency treatment. While she recovered from the attack, city officials in Norristown, Pennsylvania, pressured her landlord. He was given two options: either he’d pay a fine of $1,000 a day, and risked losing his rental license, or he’d evict the tenant and her 3-year-old. Not even ten days after the brutal attack occurred, eviction proceedings began.
If I called the police to get him out of my house, I’d get evicted. If I physically tried to remove him, somebody would call 911 and I’d be evicted. – Ms Briggs
The law is clear. All household members – perpetrators and victims – must get evicted from their home in “crime-free housing zones.” More often than not, the victims become homeless. The National Network to End Domestic Violence estimates nearly 4 in 10 abuse victims end up being homeless at some point in their lives. Worse, up to 57 per cent of survivors say domestic violence was the immediate cause of their loss of housing. Today, nearly a third of the homeless population in the United States people are families. Two-thirds of them are headed by mostly young women, who have often been victims of domestic abuse. Sadly, living on the streets only increases the likelihood of further violence against these women. Studies show homeless women are raped at a much higher rate than women, who have a roof over their head.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) eventually took up Ms Briggs’s case, fighting for the end of the nuisance laws in Norristown. In September 2014, the Pennsylvanian city agreed to a settlement. It paid Ms Briggs nearly half a million in compensation and attorneys’ fees, and repealed its ordinances.
“I thought calling 911 would help stop the abuse, but instead Maplewood punished me. I lost my home, my community, and my faith in police to provide protection.” – Ms Watson
Less than two years after the settlement in the Briggs case, a man in Lakewood, Ohio, violently attacked his girlfriend. Suffering from a broken nose and a concussion, the woman rushed over to her neighbour to call the police. Just 72 hours later, the city told her landlord: “This activity qualifies the property as a nuisance.” (Last year, the town finally repealed its “nuisance” law.) In Maplewood, Missouri, Ms Watson contacted the police on four different occasions when her ex-boyfriend attacked her. He “stabbed her in the legs, struck her breasts, and choked her.” It violated the town’s nuisance police, which stated that if a domestic violence victim called more than twice in a six-month period, the victim could be kicked out of the city. In fact, Ms Watson actually got banished from the town. Again, the ACLU stepped in and filed a lawsuit against the city. A year ago, both sides agreed to a settlement, which includes the abolishment of the rule.
Still, similar policies remain in place throughout the country. Worse, cities such as Norristown, Lakewood, and Maplewood only changed their policies after victims of abuse spoke out and threatened legal action. All three of these women could, however, be considered “lucky.” Things could have been much worse.
A women’s issue
“I would often be woken up in the middle of the night with the sound of ‘spin, click, spin, click’ from a gun while it was pressed to the back of my neck,” Angela, a domestic abuse survivor, told the gun control advocacy group Everytown. It is a frightening reminder that gun violence and mass shootings occur not only in schools, cinemas, night clubs, or shopping malls. They frequently happen at home. Over 4 million American women alive today have been threatened with a gun by an intimate partner. In comparison, Los Angeles, the second-largest city in the whole country, is home to an estimated 3.9 million citizens. Almost a million have been shot or shot at by their partner. Shockingly, every sixteen hours, an American woman gets fatally shot by her current or former partner.
The Brady Bill, the last gun control law, enacted by the Clinton Administration in 1993, includes a crucial loophole for criminals and abusers. The law enforces federal background checks when someone acquires a weapon from a licensed dealer, but these FBI checks must be completed within three business days. In case authorities miss this deadline, the gun purchase proceeds regardless of any possible convictions. Politicians refer to the provision, pushed by the country’s gun lobby, National Rifle Association (NRA), as the “Charleston loophole.” (The white supremacist who killed nine people in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 acquired his weapon “using” this particular loophole in the law.)
But it aids domestic abusers, too. Data already shows 11 per cent of all US citizens, who fail their FBI background check, and are thus prevented from buying firearms from a licensed dealer, fail due to domestic abuse violations. In 2017 alone, over 1,100 abusers were still able to acquire a firearm thanks to the “Charleston loophole.” Considering victims of domestic abuse are up to five times more likely to be killed if their (former) significant other owns a gun, the provision is directly harmful to women across the nation.
“Dangerous people with guns are a threat to women. Criminals with guns. Abusers with guns. Stalkers with guns. That makes gun violence a women’s issue. For mothers, for families, for me and you.” – Gabby Giffords
South Carolina, whose record on child marriages was covered in Part I, is in the spotlight again. In 2015, The Post and Courier from Charleston investigated femicides in this state which is “awash with guns.” The article “Till Death Do Us Part,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service, highlights the “more than 300 women [who] were shot, stabbed, strangled, beaten, bludgeoned or burned to death over the past decade by men in South Carolina.” At the time of the article, South Carolina had just been ranked number 1 in the country in the rate of women killed by men for a fourth consecutive year, and a push to change domestic abuse laws had just failed in the state legislature. Tom Corbin, a Republican state Senator who opposed the reforms due to a provision to restrict guns, explained his opposition with a scene from the comedy TV show “All in the Family.” Abusers, he claimed, would simply turn to other weapons, such as knives, to murder their (ex)girlfriends or spouses.
Later that year, the pressure on lawmakers to act had grown so much that politicians eventually passed a domestic abuse bill. Its biggest change was increased penalties for offenders. Today, South Carolina is the 6th most dangerous state for women, pushing some lawmakers to get the issue back onto the agenda.
The Palmetto State failed to significantly decrease the number of femicides for two major reasons. First, it is currently one of 41 states, where domestic abusers are not forced to relinquish firearms they owned prior to their violent actions. Second, the law defines “domestic violence,” which now carry higher sentences, as a crime against a household member. But data reveals women are now just as likely to be killed by a spouse as they are by a boyfriend. (Only 20 states and Washington, D.C., have closed the “boyfriend loophole,” prohibiting dating partners, who are under a restraining order, from possessing a gun.)
In Washington, the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which was drafted by then-Senator Joe Biden and Representative Louise Slaughter from New York, expired during the last government shutdown at the start of the year. The law provided a substantial amount of money for investigating and prosecuting crimes against women and imposed automatic restitution on convicted abusers. It was passed, as well as reauthorised in 2000 and 2005, with bipartisan support. In 2012, conservative Republicans objected to another reauthorisation, citing their fierce opposition to same-sex relationships and protections for illegal immigrants. After a long political battle, Congress eventually extended the act one more time in 2013. There have been attempts to revive the expired law after the shutdown over the funding of a border wall. The NRA fought hard against the a new domestic abuse bill, objecting to the provision to take firearms away from convicted abusers or stalkers. In the end, the Democratic House nevertheless passed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which would also amend the Fair Housing Act, ensuring people’s fundamental right to call the emergency services. The Republican-led Senate has so far refused to put the bill up for a vote.
No one in the Democratic presidential race has talked more about this law than Joe Biden. He sees it as one of his key accomplishments in the Senate – and a counter-argument to criticism of his handling of the Anita Hill testimony. When it comes to the related issue of gun control, the former Vice President, however, seems determined to use rather traditional Democratic gun control positions. He supports another assault weapons ban and an extension of background checks, as well as possibly closing the “Charleston loophole” and the “boyfriend loophole.” It is a rather safe route for anyone on this hotly debated issue in highly partisan times.
Unfortunately, such policy proposals, popular among many Democratic politicians, would barely make an impact in the fight against gun violence. Empirical evidence suggests that an assault weapons ban would merely reduce the number of deaths in mass public shootings. Handguns, which are rarely mentioned by politicians, are still responsible for the majority of gun deaths in America today, including in crimes against women. While the adoption of universal background checks, i.e., extending checks to private sellers (gun shows, online, family), is widely popular with the American public, it, too, wouldn’t be enough to substantially reduce the number of gun deaths.
Figures suggest a much better policy proposal is the one being implemented right now in Massachusetts. The state operates a gun licensing program. It has the lowest gun death rate in America. Crucially, this program doesn’t violate Second Amendment rights of Americans to hold firearms; it merely increases the number of hurdles for people to acquire them. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is currently posing the biggest threat to a Biden nomination, supports the gun licensing program from her home state. It offers another, if small, contrast between the two frontrunners.
Former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who is still struggling to gain traction in this race, became the first major candidate to take the step to the left on gun control. At this month’s presidential debate in Houston, Texas, O’Rourke explained why he wants “to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” He argued such weaponry, designed to kill as many people as possible in a short amount of time, should only be used by soldiers, not regular civilians. States like South Carolina, which don’t take smaller firearms away from domestic abusers, are already aware of the necessity of a buyback program to end the gun epidemic. While the scientific evidence, as well as some Democratic donors, might be on O’Rourke’s side, none of his competitors are. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has got the money to eventually make his way into the top tier, even claimed O’Rourke’s policy plays into the hands of Republicans and the NRA. Such a buyback program, critics argue, would be struck down by the Supreme Court, where Trump installed a rather young conservative majority. They might be right, and so far no major Democratic figure, not even O’Rourke, is prepared to take the argument one step further to the left and call for the abolishment of the Second Amendment.
Despite all the chatter the last three years about “resistance,” and the many articles and commentaries about activists taking the party firmly to the left after the Obama years, the former President’s words in his 2012 victory speech remain true to this day. “Progress,” he said, “will come in fits and starts. It’s not always a straight line. It’s not always a smooth path.”