Over the past 10 years, 1,600 Pennsylvanians died due to domestic violence. And at least 49% of those deaths were due to firearms.

woman being comfortedThe statistic illustrates the challenges of reducing gun-related intimate partner violence in the state, according to Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA, a statewide gun violence prevention organization, who spoke Monday at an APHA Annual Meeting session on “Reducing Firearm-Related Intimate Partner Violence Through Practice, Policy and Resilience.”

Among the legislative challenges: Pennsylvania is not required to collect data on domestic violence. Advocates rely on data collected by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which may not capture every incident. In addition, the state doesn’t have a specific criminal charge for “domestic violence;” instead, abusers are charged with crimes such as battery or assault.

Private gun sales are another challenge, Goodman told session attendees in Philadelphia. While federal law doesn’t regulate private sales of guns, Pennsylvania law does require background checks on private sales. However, the law includes an exception for long guns, which include shotguns, rifles and semiautomatic rifles.

“I want to restate that: semiautomatic rifles in Pennsylvania can be sold in a private sale without a background check,” Goodman said.

While some people argue that long guns aren’t typically used in murders, Goodman said that argument ignores the fact that long guns are often the weapons of choice in mass shootings. Advocates also suspect that such guns are commonly used in domestic violence cases, but such state-level data just isn’t available in Pennsylvania.

“We would like to know how often long guns are used in homicides, especially in domestic violence ones, and what is the source of the gun,” Goodman said.

Because most gun show sales in Pennsylvania are transacted through licensed dealers who have to conduct background checks, buyers can’t take advantage of the so-called gun show loophole. But to get around the requirements, private sales — which aren’t subject to background checks — are often done in the parking lots of gun shows.

“What happens when you leave the show is different, and there are a lot of arrests in those parking lots,” Goodman said.

On the positive side, the state did implement its own background check system — Pennsylvania Instant Check System or PICS — in 1998. In fact, the system contains more records than the federal system has on Pennsylvania.

“Every year, there’s an effort to get rid of (the Pennsylvania Instant Check System),” Goodman told attendees. “The people on the opposite side will say it’s duplicative…Our system works really well, and we fight very hard to keep it.”

In the past few years, state police — inspired by a similar effort in Virginia — began to check on residents who were denied a firearm through the instant check system to make sure people aren’t violating the law.

Last year, violence prevention advocates celebrated another success — passage of a new state law that strengthened protection from abuse orders. Previously, about 14% of such legal orders included mandatory gun surrender. Now, all adjudicated protection from abuse orders require gun surrenders. In addition, those required to give up their guns now have 24 to 48 hours to surrender the firearms and must hand them into law enforcement, a licensed gun dealer or an attorney. In the past, they had 60 days to surrender firearms and could hand it over to anyone, including a relative, friend or neighbor.

CeaseFirePA continues to fight for stricter gun laws. Among the organization’s priorities include closing the long gun loophole in the background check system; enacting extreme risk protection order legislation, which would temporarily remove a person’s access to guns if they are believed to be a threat to themselves or others; and providing adequate funding for law enforcement to store relinquished firearms.

For more on gun policies that work, visit APHA’s gun violence page

Photo by Juanmonino, courtesy iStockphoto