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Iowa Gun Rights Amendment Alarms Domestic Violence Victim Advocates

Voters will be asked to make it a "fundamental individual right" to keep and bear arms, and that any restraint on that right is invalid. But firearms remain the primary cause of death in domestic violence homicides.

(TNS) — Twelve people lost their lives as a result of domestic violence in Iowa in the first eight months of 2022, including a woman shot in April inside the Taboo Nightclub & Lounge in downtown Cedar Rapids.

Nine women and three bystanders were killed as a result of these domestic violence cases, according to the latest Domestic Violence Fatality Chronicle report, issued twice a year since 1995 by the Iowa Attorney General's Crime Victim Assistance Division.

The state reported 17 domestic violence deaths during the same period in 2021. In all, 20 people — 14 women, four men and two bystanders — were killed as a result of domestic violence in 2021.

While the data show a slight decrease in the number of domestic violence deaths in the state through the first eight months of 2022, law enforcement and victim advocates note reports of domestic violence rose in 2020 and continued to climb in 2021 and 2022. Victim advocates anticipate Iowa will see the same number of domestic-violence related homicides by the end of the year.

The report details eight domestic violence events, including shootings at Taboo nightclub in Cedar Rapids and Cornerstone Church in Ames. Four of those included gun violence that resulted in the deaths of seven people: four domestic violence victims and three bystanders. Two men face charges in the Taboo shooing, in which three people — including the mother of the child of one of the accused gunmen — were killed and more than 10 injured.

Firearms remain the primary cause of death in domestic violence homicides. Since 1995, 55 percent of the 375 women, men and bystanders killed by domestic violence in Iowa died as a result of being shot with a firearm.

"The tragedies of these immediate deaths continue to ripple through families and communities," Sandi Tibbetts Murphy, director of the Iowa Attorney General's Office Crime Victim Assistance Division, said in a statement.

Gun rights, gaps and loopholes

Alta Medea is director of community engagement for the Domestic Violence Intervention Program in Iowa City.

Medea worries an Iowa constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall will make it harder to enact "sensible" gun laws in the state to keep firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers — like strengthened background checks or extreme risk protection orders, commonly known as "red flag" laws — as well as put existing gun laws at risk of being overturned.

Iowa voters will be asked Nov. 8 to add language to the Iowa Constitution that states it is a "fundamental individual right" to keep and bear arms, and that any restraint on that right is invalid unless it meets the stringent demands of "strict scrutiny" in court.

Democrats and gun-safety advocates say the "strict scrutiny" language goes beyond protections contained in the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment, and could prohibit safety measures that many Iowans support and could lead to courts overturning gun restrictions already on the books.

The Iowa Firearms Coalition, a gun-rights advocacy group, and supporters of the amendment contend its serves as an important firewall to protect Iowans' fundamental right to keep and bear arms to protect themselves.

People convicted of felonies currently are banned from possessing firearms in Iowa, as are those convicted of certain misdemeanor domestic violence offenses and people with certain mental health concerns.

Medea, though, notes after strict scrutiny amendments were adopted in Louisiana and Missouri, a handful of people challenged laws in those states that prohibit felons and domestic abusers from possessing firearms. In Louisiana, after strict scrutiny passed, a convicted domestic abuser challenged the constitutionality of a state law prohibiting possession of a firearm by people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence crimes.

"Public Measure #1 threatens the basic public safety precautions that we currently have ... (and) doesn't actually make Iowans safer," Medea said. "It actually gives space for perpetrators of domestic violence to appeal against our laws that would keep them from having firearms."

And while a bipartisan federal gun safety bill signed into law in June closed what was known as the "boyfriend loophole" on a national level, gaps still exist in Iowa that keep the loophole open in most cases, experts say.

The law extended a federal prohibition on gun ownership for those convicted of domestic assault to individuals who are dating. Previously, federal law prohibited domestic abusers from having guns only if they have been married to, have lived with, or have a child with the victim. It did not otherwise prohibit abusive dating partners from having guns.

Iowa law, however, does not treat violence by dating partners as a domestic assault. Instead, perpetrators are charged with other forms of assault that don't prevent gun ownership.

"The truth is that we know a perpetrator of domestic violence can sell their gun to their cousin or friend and still have access to it," Medea said.

Domestic violence cases rise

Domestic violence-related reports and arrests in Iowa City — including stalking and harassment, no-contact order violations and domestic assaults — have increased over the past six years, growing from 624 in 2016 to 958 in 2021. Year to date through August, the Iowa City Police Department saw 600 domestic violence-related cases.

Detective Zachary Murguia, Iowa City Police Department's domestic violence investigator, said many of the economic stressors caused by the COVID-19 pandemic appear to remain in place that make domestic violence more likely.

Murguia said victims of relationship violence this year have described financial difficulties including debt, only one partner working and not having enough money in general — issues likely being impacted by inflation, rising interest rates and job losses.

Cedar Rapids also saw an increase, according to data from the Cedar Rapids Police Department.

Overall, aggravated domestic assault and simple domestic abuse cases have fluctuated over the past six years, from 582 in 2017 to 550 in 2020 and 600 in 2021. Through September of this year, Cedar Rapids police reported 427 total cases of domestic violence.

Cedar Rapids public safety spokesman Mike Battien noted that in recent years domestic violence cases have been more streamlined in terms of charges. More consistent definitions have resulted in more accurate charges between simple and aggravated assault, he said in an email.

"As these protocols age, the stats coming from (domestic violence) cases will be more consistent and trackable over time," he wrote.

Training and programs that make law enforcement officers more accessible to victims have also likely played a part as to why domestic violence numbers are increasing.

Cedar Rapids police implemented training in 2017 that has officers asking domestic abuse victims a series of questions. The questions, called the lethality assessment, are asked every time officers respond to a domestic violence situation where someone is arrested. In Iowa, officers must make an arrest any time there is a domestic assault that results in an injury to the victim.

The assessment helps determine whether victims are at risk of being killed in a domestic violence situation.

"We've had better success getting services to victims and charges on offenders through that assessment," Battien wrote.

The Domestic Violence Intervention Program in Iowa City said it continues to see an increase in individuals seeking victim support services, especially in smaller, rural communities.

With the pandemic creating opportunities for perpetrators of domestic violence to keep victims at home, victims have waited longer before leaving domestic violence situations because the prospect of finding housing can be daunting, Medea said.

But with the effects of the pandemic fading, more victims are feeling safe seeking help, she said.

Nelly Hill, the program director for domestic violence victim services at Waypoint in Cedar Rapids, said Waypoint's domestic violence victim statistics have remained steady.

"However, we are struggling with finding the resources survivors need in order to increase their own safety," Hill said.

That includes finding and accessing affordable housing, child care openings, flexible employment for single mothers and mental health services that meet the needs of trauma victims.

Hill said the 2020 derecho and pandemic impacted affordability and quality of the housing stock throughout Linn County, creating an increased need for housing stabilization support and fewer units for people to access.

October is national Domestic Violence Awareness month. Emily Andersen of The Gazette contributed.

(c)2022 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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