In 2013, Colorado passed a law requiring perpetrators of domestic violence to turn in any firearms they might own. “It’s a great law, it’s comprehensive, and it’s terrific policy,” says Sarah Tofte, director of research and implementation for not-for-profit Everytown for Gun Safety.
There was just one problem: Judges didn’t seem to be enforcing it. Tofte and other advocates were hearing that judges often didn’t order relinquishment of firearms when they should have.
In response, Everytown for Gun Safety began what it refers to as its implementation program. The program is an effort to discover exactly what happens to certain gun-control laws after they’re passed, and to increase the chances that the laws are used as intended.
“We had some anecdotal evidence about what was happening, and we were in court rooms seeing it happen,” says Tofte. “But we could not get the attention of local and state leaders until we could quantify it.”
Everytown’s first project, which has been underway for about a year, is in Colorado. Tofte will be presenting some of the early results of this work during her keynote at the 2017 Data for Good Exchange, which will be held at Bloomberg’s New York headquarters on September 24th.
When Tofte and her team began examining relinquishment rates, Colorado had not done extensive work investigating these rates within its jurisdiction. But state employees were eager to learn more about what was happening within their borders.
“We are very grateful that, when we started engaging with the state judicial administrator on this data, they were very open about what data they could and could not give us,” says Tofte. “They also created some data just for us.”
In 2013, the year the law was passed, Colorado had a statewide relinquishment rate of 13 percent. By 2016, it had only reached 36 percent. “You should be seeing relinquishment rates of 100 percent,” says Tofte.
She and her colleagues started digging through the data. Denver had a relinquishment rate of 60 percent when it came to criminal cases, though the rates in family court were considerably lower. There were other jurisdictions with rates of just five percent. While Tofte and her colleagues initially suspected that urban areas might have higher relinquishment rates than rural ones, they discovered that wasn’t the case overall. “We were able to identify some counties that were doing really well,” she says.
By identifying the jurisdictions with high relinquishment rates, Tofte and her team were able to start understanding why the law was implemented more forcefully in some places than in others. They discovered that success in implementing the law didn’t necessarily depend upon how local leaders felt about gun control in general. The key seemed to be their understanding of domestic violence.
“If you have a jurisdiction that has a really strong commitment to understanding the nature of domestic violence, and they understand the dangerous connection between firearms and domestic violence, then implementation is much stronger,” says Tofte.
In some jurisdictions, she says, mayors, district attorneys, judges, and other local leaders might oppose restricting access to firearms on principle. But, those same jurisdictions might have very strong support programs for victims of domestic violence, and, she says, “They are going to use every tool in their toolbox to keep those victims safe.”
Now, Everytown for Gun Safety is looking to take the data a step further, trying to identify the ‘reverberating impact,’ as Tofte puts it, that laws such as Colorado’s can have. Tofte says she’s not so naïve as to think that just letting people know the law isn’t being implemented effectively will automatically make people rush to use it more widely. But she notes that domestic violence relinquishment laws are very popular and have enjoyed strong bipartisan support.
Calculating the immediate impact of protecting one person in a household is relatively straightforward. But Tofte wants to look at who else is in the household and how the relinquishment of firearms might change the overall family dynamic. What would the impact be on any children in the household? Officer safety is another issue. If a police officer has to return to the same household, he or she should be able to do so knowing that the offender no longer has access to guns.
Says Tofte: “We hope this research is convincing enough that other jurisdictions will be inspired to follow suit.”