A little over two weeks has passed since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida claimed the lives of 17 people, and little action has been taken on the national level to address the glaring issue of gun violence in the United States. But two female governors have decided to address the problem head-on.
On Feb. 25, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo signed an executive order to establish a “red flag” law in the state that would keep guns out of the hands of people “who pose a danger to themselves and others.”
“The heartbreaking shooting in Parkland has once again proven that if the federal government won’t act,” Raimondo said when she signed the order, “states need to do more to prevent the gun violence that has become far too common.”
The 19-year-old shooter at the Florida high school, Nikolas Cruz, had been the subject of dozens of 911 calls over many years for his violence and threats towards his family and friends—yet he nonetheless still had access to guns. Under Rhode Island’s red flag law, police with warrants can seize guns from individuals who look to either hurt themselves or others. It encourages law enforcement agencies to investigate all warning signs, such as threats of violence made in person, and online in videos and on social media. The governor’s executive order also directs municipal police and state police to share information regarding troubled individuals, and state departments to begin a public awareness campaign on red flags.
Rhode Island now joins California, Connecticut, Indiana, Oregon and Washington, which all have similar red flag laws—and sets the tone for other states and lawmakers at every level to respond to a nation in crisis. “This is the first executive action on red flags since Parkland,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, told USA Today, “and our thousands of advocates in Rhode Island and around the country could not be more proud that this effort.”
Just a few days prior to Raimondo’s order, on Feb. 22, the Oregon legislature passed a bill that will ban convicted domestic abusers and stalkers from buying or owning firearms. Prior to this new legislation in Oregon, it was illegal in the state to own a gun if a person was the subject of a restraining order or had “been convicted of a violent crime against an intimate partner.” That last term, “intimate partner,” however, left a rather large gaping hole in protecting victims of domestic abuse. Nicknamed the “boyfriend loophole” by lawmakers, the older law in Oregon allowed convicted domestic abusers and stalkers to purchase firearms so long as they weren’t married or living with the victim or had no children with the victim.
The Stoneman Douglas High School shooter had a history of cruel behavior—he was allegedly abusive towards his ex-girlfriend and stalked another female student. Authorities were aware of his violent behavior, but he was still allowed to own firearms. The newly passed Oregon law will hold a much larger net of people accountable if convicted of domestic abuse or hit with a restraining order, barring their access to dangerous weapons. It broadens the term “intimate partner” to “family or household member”—which, per Oregon law, includes current and former spouses, adult persons related by blood or marriage, people co-habitating together, people who have cohabited together or who have had a sexually intimate relationship and unmarried parents of a minor child.
“Closing the ‘Intimate Partner Loophole’ is an important step to keep Oregonians safer, and to keep guns out of the wrong hands,” Gov. Kate Brown wrote in a statement. She has declared her intention to sign the legislation into law.
Legislation tightening these loopholes protects not just the victims of domestic violence, but all of a state’s residents. Toxic and abusive behavior isn’t a rarity among mass shooters; as reported in the forthcoming Spring 2018 issue of Ms., gun violence and domestic abuse are strongly connected. According to Everytown for Gun Safety researchers, 23 percent of mass shootings involved a killer with a history of abuse—a figure that may ultimately be even higher, since domestic violence often remains unreported. When state laws force those convicted of domestic violence to give up their guns, a Michigan State University study reported a 22 percent reduction in intimate partner murders. As more and more reports uncover previous evidence of abuse after mass shooting, it is worth considering how far legislation tackling the intersections of these issues could go in reducing more public forms of gun violence as well.
A handful of states are now considering gun law legislation, but only Rhode Island and Oregon, thus far, have produced and passed bills on the matter since the Parkland shooting. And although state law reform is admirable and important, Brown called for more far-reaching reform at the national level in her statement. “We need national action and federal legislation,” she declared. “Now’s the time to enact real change, and I’m encouraged to see students in Oregon and across the nation engaged and joining the call for gun safety legislation. It’s long past time we hold the White House, Congress, and legislators accountable.”
Brown is joined in that chorus by activists from across the country—including women’s rights leaders. Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, called on activists on March 1 to pass an assault weapons ban and close loopholes in background check laws.
“The incredible students from Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida have done what few others have been able to do: bring lawmakers to the table to discuss substantive, serious gun policy reform,” Smeal wrote in an email to members. “Seize this momentum!”