Can Domestic Abusers Buy Guns?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on November 08, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

One of the common threads that tie many mass shooters together is a history of domestic violence or abuse. That was certainly the case with Devin Kelley, who gunned down 26 people at a church in Texas. Kelley was convicted and court-martialed by the Air Force for beating his wife and breaking his young stepson's skull in 2012. The question that naturally arises from these revelations is: How are convicted domestic abusers able to purchase firearms? After all, Kelley bought the AR-15 military-style rifle two years after his court-martial.

As it turns out, there are laws prohibiting domestic abusers from buying guns, but they are not so easily enforced.

Gun Buying Bans for Abusers

Federal law prohibits domestic violence offenders from purchasing, owning, or using guns, under certain conditions. The abuser must have been convicted of either a domestic violence felony or misdemeanor, or the victim must have a restraining order against the abuser. State domestic violence gun laws can vary somewhat, and some are more strict than the federal guidelines, but all states must accept the basic federal rules.

And because state domestic violence laws can vary, there had been some disagreement in courts about the kinds of domestic violence convictions that can trigger the federal gun ban. The Supreme Court resolved those last year, ruling that the prohibition is valid even where the violence was merely reckless, as opposed to intentional.

Data-less Database

The only problem, in Kelley's case and many others, is that domestic violence convictions aren't being entered into the National Criminal Information Center database used for gun-buying background checks. Following the shooting, the Air Force on Monday acknowledged that Kelley's court-martial had not been entered into the database and promised to review all similar cases to determine if they had been properly reported.

And, as the New York Times points out, this system also failed in the case of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho, whose court-ordered mental health treatment was also not entered into the database. So when it comes to barring convicted domestic abusers from gun purchases or ownership, the database on which those prohibitions rely "is only as good as the data that is put into it."

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