Take his guns away, already: Why the George Zimmermans are so protected

What exactly does it take for a man with domestic abuse complaints and a fatal shooting to lose access to weapons?

Published September 12, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)

George Zimmerman                     (Reuters/Joe Burbank)
George Zimmerman (Reuters/Joe Burbank)

Exactly what happened on Monday between George Zimmerman and his estranged wife, Shellie, in Lake Mary, Fla., is still in doubt -- but seeing the words “Zimmerman,” “gun” and “altercation” strung together once again has turned Zimmerman into a lightning rod for questions regarding gun violence and domestic abuse in the United States.

Based on the initial report, Shellie called the police that day claiming Zimmerman, brandishing his firearm, was threatening her, daring her to “step closer” to him. “I don’t know what he’s capable of. I'm really, really scared,” she told the emergency dispatcher. He violently destroyed her iPad, she said, allegedly cutting through the device with his pocketknife. He also apparently came to blows with her father, and allegedly exhibited the complete lack of self-control and dangerously poor judgment for which the public has come to know him.

But because Shellie changed her story only hours later -- saying she never saw a firearm, and that she wouldn’t press charges -- there was no domestic violence report filed. Absent that, the police didn’t pursue a warrant to search Zimmerman’s vehicle for the gun he may or may not have used to threaten Shellie.

Whether or not Zimmerman had a gun on him that day, one thing remains clear: The gun he used to kill Trayvon Martin may still be lawfully returned to him. And he is, according to recent reports, looking to buy more.

Which invites the question: What does a person have to do in this country to get a gun taken away? Or lose the right to a concealed carry permit? And, more specifically, what does a man with a noted history of both domestic violence complaints and a willingness to use deadly force, who is currently in the news for what may still turn out to be another such incident, have to do?

Turns out: quite a terrifying lot. Because, put mildly, the laws in Florida and elsewhere regulating gun ownership among domestic abusers and men suspected of domestic violence are, shall we say, permissive.

“In our country, and in most states, the scales have been very, very heavily tipped toward the individual rights of gun owners,” Dr. Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, tells Salon. “United States policy almost always gives the benefit of the doubt to the gun owner,” and things are no different in cases of domestic violence.

According to recent data, more than 60 percent of women killed by a firearm in 2010 were murdered by a current or former intimate partner. The presence of a firearm during a domestic violence incident increases the likelihood of a homicide by an astounding 500 percent. In general, guns are very, very bad for women's health.

But in spite of all of the evidence identifying a strong and deadly correlation between gun deaths and violence against women, our policies to protect women (victims of intimate partner-related gun violence are, overwhelmingly, female) are full of holes.

For an example of this, look no further than Florida. In Zimmerman's home state, as a result of federal law, it is illegal for a person subjected to a protective order to own or purchase firearms, and it is a crime for that person to refuse to surrender them to law enforcement. This is a good law that, when effectively enforced, can save women's lives. "There are actually three studies now published in scientific journals showing how this policy [barring people subjected to restraining orders from owning or purchasing firearms] is associated with a significant reduction in risk of intimate partner homicide -- ranging from a 6 to 19 percent reduction," Webster notes.

But because the law does not explicitly compel courts to authorize police to take the firearms away, many people who are subjected to domestic violence-related restraining orders are still able to keep and carry their guns, undeterred. And those who do have their guns taken away will just as soon have them returned at the expiration of that order. "The minute it expires," Webster says, "the person who has been under the order can legally possess as many guns as they like. And in places like Florida, this person can also carry a concealed and loaded gun more or less wherever they want."

Zimmerman is a perfect example of this. In 2005, the same year he faced felony charges for battering a police officer, Zimmerman was subject to a temporary restraining order after his ex-fiancée accused him of striking, shoving and groping her on several occasions. During the duration of the order, Zimmerman was prohibited from owning or purchasing firearms. But after it expired in 2006, he was once again eligible to possess a gun -- and obtain a concealed carry permit.

"There are places, like the state of New York and New Jersey, for example, that give law enforcement some discretion in denying [concealed carry permits]. So someone may not fit the letter of the law with regard to prohibition, but if law enforcement looks at their background and sees something akin to what Zimmerman's record looks like, they have more discretion to deny the application," Webster says.

Applying additional scrutiny, specifically in the form of tightened and mandatory background checks or longer wait times regarding when and how guns are returned to an abuser, is an incredibly limited encroachment on someone's ability to own a firearm. (Or multiple firearms, as is the case with Zimmerman.) But, as with so many other proposals for moderate gun regulation, pushback from the gun lobby leaves such measures dead in the water.

The failure is "largely a matter of political maneuvering," Lindsay Nichols, a staff attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, tells Salon. "Bills that would strengthen the laws in these common-sense ways often don't make it out of committee" because of powerful political interests.

As federal law currently stands, there is nothing short of a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction or a permanent protective order that can bar an abuser from owning or purchasing additional firearms. But the trouble with these requirements is that so many domestic violence cases never go to trial, and even fewer end in conviction. As a result, women remain vulnerable, and abusers who have evaded criminal charges remain free to keep their firearms and do real harm.

We don't know what the outcome of the current Zimmerman case will be. Florida law does not require the consent of a victim to pursue domestic violence charges against an alleged abuser, and, according to recent reports, police are currently considering the possibility of doing so. But with the iPad containing video evidence of what transpired destroyed beyond repair, that may not happen. And Zimmerman will remain, as ever, an evasively "law-abiding" citizen.

And unless something changes at the policy level, our laws will, as ever, remain grossly inadequate at protecting women from violence, and the number of women who are shot and killed by intimate partners will remain unacceptably high.

There are practical steps that can change this. "Prohibit the possession of a gun when someone is subject to a protective order. This has to be a state law," Nichols says. "And the state needs to have a procedure in place to require the removal of guns when a protective order is issued."

"The reality [of gun policies] is really messy," Webster also says. "You've got all kinds of George Zimmermans and everything in between there who fall through the cracks of our exclusions. But if you ask any reasonable person how comfortable they are with an individual like that running around with a concealed, loaded gun, the vast majority would say they are not."

Updated: An earlier version of this post misstated the status of the gun Zimmerman used to kill Trayvon Martin. It is being held pending an investigation by the Department of Justice.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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