Domestic Violence and Guns: A Deadly CombinationPreventing fatalities is complex work, and new state legislation aims to help
On the evening of March 29, in a quiet Buffalo suburb, officers from the Orchard Park Police Department found David Lewczyk, 53, and Ruby Stiglmeier, 51, dead in the bedroom at Stiglmeier’s house. Stiglmeier had been shot three times, and Lewczyk, once to the head—a murder-suicide, police suspect. Lying with the bodies was a .22 caliber handgun that belonged to Lewczyk.
There had been an incident in December involving the couple, whose relationship has been described as on-again, off-again. Stiglmeier had called the police to report that Lewczyk, of the nearby town of Panama, had come into her home in a rage. He lit things on fire in the garage and left with some of her things, according to reports in local papers. An order of protection, requiring Lewczyk to stay away from Stiglmeier was put in place; however Stiglmeier asked instead for a refrain order, which essentially says that any inappropriate actions will be an offense, but allows the parties to see each other. Stiglmeier and Lewczyk continued to do so. Her Facebook references the two of them out hunting together in early March.
A checked box on the order of protection could have required Lewczyk to surrender any guns he owned. He also had a pending felony charge from December, which, had he been convicted, would have meant that he couldn’t own guns. But guns stayed out of the conversation. In the absence of any order, Lewczyk remained in legal possession of the .22 caliber pistol that appears to have become a murder/suicide weapon.
If new bills passed in the New York State Assembly on May 3 become law, there will be a stronger emphasis on making sure guns stay out of the hands of domestic violence offenders. One bill, sponsored by New York State Assemblywoman Amy Paulin of Scarsdale, creates a protocol for the surrender of guns in certain domestic violence incidents. Another, sponsored by Daniel O’Donnell of Manhattan, expands a definition of which domestic violence offenses trigger gun restrictions for offenders.
Up until a few years ago, New York had no legal definition of what misdemeanors qualified someone to have their gun taken away. Federal law bans people who have committed certain domestic violence misdemeanors and family offenses from owning guns. But the federal guidelines are broad strokes. Individual states are then expected to create their own laws and protocols for actually enforcing the federal laws. In New York, that’s been fuzzy. Paulin’s bill, which she hopes will become law by June, will change one aspect of this.
“When a gun is in the house, abused women are much more vulnerable to being killed, and we have to make sure to protect women in that circumstance,” Paulin told NY City Lens.
The link between guns and domestic violence fatalities, of women in particular, is well documented. When a woman has been threatened or assaulted by a gun, she is 20 times more likely to be killed by her abuser. In addition, roughly half of the American women who are killed with guns are killed by an intimate partner. In turn, guns are responsible for over half of intimate partner homicides.
“The immediate lethality of a gun reinforces the power and control that domestic violence is all about in such an immediate and visceral way,” said Jennifer Friedman, legal director of My Sisters’ Place, a White Plains–based agency focused on domestic violence. “We regularly hear from clients, ‘He just has to point to the pocket where I know he carries his gun for me to know what he means.’”
Friedman did note that her organization sees violence from both genders and within same-sex partnerships. Murder statistics, however, overwhelmingly identify women as the victims of intimate partner violence.
The tragedies that occur when domestic violence and guns coexist aren’t limited to the intimate partners of the gun holders—14 percent of police officer deaths happen while the officer is responding to a domestic violence call. Mass shootings, where four or more people are killed, have also been found to be highly correlated with domestic violence. A recent shooting in Rockville, Maryland, for example, involved a man who shot his ex-wife in a parking lot and ended up also shooting a man who tried to help her. Before he was apprehended the next day, he had shot three others. A nation-wide analysis by Everytown For Gun Safety, a coalition focused on gun control research and advocacy, revealed that in nearly 60 percent of mass shootings, one of the victims was a spouse or intimate partner.
In an effort to prevent gun violence, New York state has some of the tightest gun possession restrictions nationwide, with a broad-sweeping assault rifle ban and strict background checks and licensing for handguns. The state also regulates, tracks, and restricts firearm possession by certain domestic violence offenders. Despite these efforts and an overall decline in domestic violence homicides, firearms are still used in one third of the state’s domestic violence homicides.
Legislative loopholes, along with ambiguities and inconsistencies in enforcement, still persist, though Assemblywoman Paulin’s bill will bridge one of the most visible ones. It’s not the first time that she has addressed this issue. In 2011, Assemblywoman Paulin and former state Senator Stephen Saland, championed a bill pinpointing which domestic violence misdemeanors—like strangling or forcible touching— rise to the level where a gun needs to be removed from an offender. They worked with the FBI to get those offenders listed on the National Instant Criminal Background Check database, used by gun sellers.
The 2011 law states that offenders are “prohibited from purchasing or possessing a firearm.” But Paulin knew that this law only addressed the offender’s future purchase of guns in New York State, not whether the offender currently owned one. And she said that while the state has protocol for the surrender of firearms for domestic violence felony charges, none exist when it comes to violent misdemeanors. The new bill takes care of that nuance, making all offenders surrender their existing weapons, Paulin said.
Paulin is optimistic that the bill will pass in the state Senate, and become another shield for potential victims of domestic and intimate partner gun violence. Yet, even in situations where current law does provide for weapons to be confiscated, it is not always as simple as police arriving at a home to collect the weapons, or an offender surrendering them to their precinct as ordered.
Judge J. Machelle Sweeting of the New York County Family Court sees this difficulty play out in family court, where people can file for orders of protection against domestic violence, as an alternative to calling the police. However, she added, when a person comes to family court asking for protection from domestic violence, he or she often comes in alone. Without the presence of the other party, getting weapons taken out of a situation gets complicated.
“There are often cases where the petitioner says, ‘I don’t know their address. We were living in the same place. They left, they fled,’” she explained. In those cases, the accused has no notice that the other person is even in court, let alone that there is a temporary order issued with instructions for weapons to be surrendered.
Even if a family court judge issues a separate order for weapons to be taken away from a person and alerts the NYPD precincts, the order won’t prevent offenders from obtaining other guns illegally. And laws and orders aren’t always perfectly enacted.
“You can have the best laws in the world, but if they aren’t implemented by every piece of the system then it doesn’t really matter what your law is,” says Amy Barasch, former head of the N.Y. State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and president of Her Justice, a nonprofit legal firm representing women. “It has to be law enforcement and judges and prosecutors and community opinion—they are all working together to make those laws effective, and we don’t really have that on the issues of guns right now.”
Gun laws in New York state show how complicated this can get. The state encompasses both the nation’s largest city and rural towns and villages with just a few hundred residents, and gun laws reflect this difference. For example, outside New York City, long guns, like rifles, don’t require permits, registration or licensing, while in the city all guns require them.
About 3,600 judges preside over hundreds of jurisdictions across the state, and the confiscation of weapons in accordance with state law depends on the orders they issue to law enforcement. If law enforcement isn’t ordered to confiscate weapons, their surrender is up to the offender, who would be in violation of federal or state law if he or she retains the weapons.
“If the judge has checked off the box saying the gun shall be removed, the officers have to remove the gun. If that box isn’t checked off, the burden is kind of on the defendant, because there is no affirmative action on the part of law enforcement to do anything about that,” Justice’s Barasch said. “When I was working at the state level, I found a fair amount of confusion within the police departments about what was the appropriate action for them to take, because they get sort of mixed messages about that.”
And as if the legal and procedural quandaries weren’t complicated enough, the reality is that predicting domestic homicide is difficult. As the statistics show, women are six times more likely to be killed by an intimate partner when there is a gun in the house. Yet, these murders may not always correlate with a history of domestic violence. In some cases, the domestic violence had no precedent, or if it did, previous incidents went unreported. Even when there is a history of abuse, the research is less clear about what kinds of domestic abuse can predict a homicide.
“You can be killed and not be a victim of what we would consider severe injury,” said Friedman, legal director of My Sisters’ Place.
That organization is currently partnering with the White Plains Police Department to implement a lethality assessment method, developed for law enforcement at the University of Maryland. Using the assessment, when officers arrive at the scene of a domestic dispute they ask a set of questions, such as if there have been verbal threats, to determine if the survivor faces a potentially fatal risk.
Even then, though, verbal threats aren’t always believed by the people involved. Consider this statement made by Bronx resident Sergio Perea Saavedra. On Christmas Day 2015, the husband of Saavedra’s sister shot her and then fled the city. After the incident, which his sister survived, Saavedra told the New York Daily News: “He said a lot, ‘I wanna kill you, I wanna kill you,’ but I never believed he would do this.”