The Supreme Court is set to hear a case about abusers and guns. It’s urgent to change the reductive narrative about intimate partner violence.
On July 4, Scott Swale broke into Tatiana Tavares’s Raynham home. He fatally shot her as she lay in bed. He died by suicide. A statement from Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn’s office said Swale, 43, and Tavares, 30, “had been engaged in a hostile yearlong on-again, off-again relationship.”
It’s not the first time Hema Sarang-Sieminski, deputy director of Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, has heard lethal acts of intimate partner violence described that way.
“The coverage was concerning because it was the ‘tumultuous relationship’ kind of conversation as opposed to naming this type of harm as a pattern of power and control that results in domestic violence-related homicide,” she told me in an interview. “I think that kind of language is used to distance or dismiss the very calculated pattern at play in these kinds of scenarios.”
That can affect perceptions of domestic violence in families, in communities, and in this nation’s courts, she said. And this is particularly alarming because last month, the conservative-led Supreme Court agreed to hear a case during its next term on whether the government can keep guns away from people with domestic violence restraining orders against them.
Just last year, the high court ruled 6-3, with its three liberal judges dissenting, to strike down a New York law that limited rights to carry a firearm in public. Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said government “must demonstrate that the regulation is consistent with this nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”
That flung open the doors to even greater erosions of gun safety policies. In February, the US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit trashed a federal law to bar domestic abusers from having guns, ruling it unconstitutional. But it was the decision’s wording that was particularly chilling. Banning domestic abusers from possessing guns is an “outlier that our ancestors would never have accepted,” it read.
“We as a society have a real challenge in acknowledging that harm is happening within our own homes, and that also means we have to talk about who’s causing that harm,” Sarang-Sieminski said. “We have to look around our own communities, workplaces, places of worship, and schools and reframe the narrative that domestic violence is a form of community violence. Harm to one is harm to all.”
In a brief asking the Supreme Court to overturn the circuit court’s ruling, the Justice Department argued that “more than a million acts of domestic violence occur in the United States every year and the presence of a firearm increases the chances that violence will escalate to homicide.”
But in a nation where about 50 women are murdered each month by a current or former intimate partner and guns are the leading cause of death for children, domestic violence rarely seems to garner the same sustained outrage as other violent crimes.
Mass shootings over the long July 4th weekend in Shreveport, La., Baltimore, and Philadelphia received hours of coverage. But unless you lived in or near St. Ann, Mo., it’s unlikely you heard that Seychelle Schaumburg and her three children were shot in their home by Coleman McIlvain, Schaumburg’s boyfriend, who died by suicide. Only Schaumburg’s 9-year-old daughter survived.
“It almost sends a message that this type of harm doesn’t rise to the level of meriting restrictions on someone’s Second Amendment rights,” she said. “It’s like rewinding the language to narratives that we as a movement have really tried to overcome for decades. And it does feel like we’re getting dangerously close to that narrative again.”
Judges are “taking these originalist interpretations and attempting to create a scenario where they’re applying that framework to a particular issue,” Sarang-Sieminski said. “We’re in a time period where they’re trying to roll back the clock and roll back history in such profound ways to an era when there were no protections available to survivors.”
As with its decisions on abortion and affirmative action, the Supreme Court will likely wait until well into its next term, which starts in October, to issue a ruling that will determine whether this nation’s highest court will again place the Second Amendment above the safety of American lives.