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Keep Guns Out of the Hands of Domestic Abusers

Jan. 23, 2013
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Milwaukeeans were shocked and saddened by two high-profile shootings of domestic abuse victims last year. In October, three women were fatally shot at the Azana Salon & Spa in Brookfield, and on Christmas Eve, an Iraq war veteran allegedly shot and killed his wife, a Wauwatosa police officer.

According to court testimony concerning the former incident, Radcliffe Haughton had a history of threatening and abusing his estranged wife, Zina. After Zina obtained a restraining order against him last October, Haughton was supposed to surrender his weapons and was legally barred from possessing any other firearms.

Yet despite the court order, Haughton was able to purchase a firearm simply by posting a message on a website.

At a press conference last week, Tony Gibart of the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WCADV) read excerpts from Haughton’s email request.

“Looking for a handgun that is $300 or best offer,” Haughton’s ad stated. “Looking to buy ASAP.”

 Haughton soon found a seller and reportedly bought it in a McDonald’s parking lot. One day later, Haughton went on a rampage at his estranged wife’s workplace, the Azana Salon & Spa, killing Zina and two other women, and injuring four others before turning the gun on himself.

On Christmas Eve, Wauwatosa police officer Jennifer Sebena was allegedly shot and killed by her husband, Benjamin. He told investigators that he had been stalking her and had been lying in wait for her for hours before killing her. Officer Sebena had told a co-worker that her husband, an Iraq war veteran, had threatened her by holding a gun to her head.

These two stories are tragic—and unfortunately typical—examples of what happens when a domestic abuser has easy access to a weapon.

According to statistics compiled by the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission, between 2005 and 2010 there were 52 intimate partner homicides in the city; 18 of them, or 35%, were the result of shootings. Between 2006 and 2010, there were 48 nonfatal shootings of intimate partners in the city. The overwhelming majority of these victims are African American Milwaukeeans.

WCADV’s research shows that a domestic violence homicide occurs in Wisconsin each week. Most involve a firearm.

“Far too many of those involve a firearm that was illegally obtained or possessed,” Gibart said.

Erin Perkins, coordinator of the Milwaukee Commission on Violence and Sexual Assault, said that although those with a domestic abuse restraining order aren’t allowed to purchase or possess any firearms, someone as dangerous as Haughton was easily able to buy one from a private seller.

Background checks on all gun sales would have prevented Haughton from buying the weapon he allegedly used at the Azana spa.

“Our primary priority legislatively is making sure that there are universal background checks and that there are no simple alternatives for someone who is legally prohibited,” Perkins said. “We have a record that they are prohibited from having a gun and need to make sure that we are tracking who is not supposed to have them and setting up roadblocks for them so that they are not obtaining those guns.”

Perkins said that cracking down on straw purchases would also reduce intimate partner gun violence. Perkins found during her research on domestic violence, conducted with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, that abusers were abusing, threatening and manipulating their partners so that the partners would purchase guns for their abusers.

“They were using abuse as a way to get their partners to purchase guns for them, but they’re also using them to threaten them, and in some cases, to murder their partner,” Perkins said.

She said that other components of Obama’s gun reform package would also help reduce gun-related domestic violence, especially his emphasis on mental health services and studying gun violence as a public health issue. She said domestic violence has devastating effects not only on those involved—including anxiety, trauma, depression and substance abuse—but destabilizes schools and neighborhoods as well.

Perkins also called for the reauthorization of a strong Violence Against Women Act that includes protections for same-sex partners, immigrants and Native Americans. The bill was stymied by House Republicans and expired in January.


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