Guest Columnist

A survivor's case for tightening background checks

(David Maialetti/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
(David Maialetti/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

Close to thirty years have passed, but the day my husband held our daughter hostage while threatening me will always be seared in my memory.

I arrived home from work that day to find my husband extremely intoxicated. He immediately became verbally abusive, attacking me for “not paying enough attention to him,” and then ruthlessly beat me. He also attacked my mother when she threw herself in front of him, trying to keep him from both our sleeping infant and the guns that were kept in the bedroom.

When he finally stopped trying to reach the gun and our other child, he picked up Emma and tried to force us into the car. Every bone in my body told me that if I got in his car that day, he would kill me, so I refused and pleaded for him to put Emma down. He refused. Then the police showed up and ordered him to put Emma down. Finally, with four guns pointed at him, he did.

In the weeks after that terrifying incident, the court mandated he put trigger locks on his guns, and I — thinking he had learned his lesson — dropped the charges. But nobody followed up on the court order, and his guns remained strewn around the house, unlocked reminders that the next time he got violent with me could be the last. So, without help from law enforcement, I took the responsibility of protecting my family into my own hands: using my briefly-lived influence following his arrest, I persuaded him to sell his guns at pawnshops. Years later, after several attempts, I finally worked up the courage to take my kids and leave him behind.

I’m lucky; my children and I survived, and my family have healed and have found a semblance of peace — but for too many victims of domestic abuse across America, the brutality never ends. I didn’t know the statistics at the time of the incident, but access to a gun makes it five times more likely that a woman will be shot and killed by an abusive partner — and 52 American women are shot to death by an intimate partner every month. Those statistics show why my husband should never have been allowed to keep his guns after abusing me, and why nobody should be allowed to purchase a gun after being convicted of domestic assault.

Technically, the law already prohibits spouses convicted of domestic abuse or under a final protection order from purchasing a firearm — but hundreds of thousands of gun sales happen every year without a background check, enabling anyone, even convicted domestic abusers, to purchase weapons with impunity. To keep families like mine safe, we need to close that loophole for good.

Iowa’s state Legislature already passed a background check law for handguns, but guns can easily be brought to Iowa from neighboring states with weaker gun safety laws — in fact, between 2013 and 2017 alone, nearly 2,000 crime guns were recovered in Iowa that originated in other states, and the majority of those guns came from states that don’t require background checks on all gun sales. In other words, without legislation at the federal level, our state will only be as safe as its weakest neighbors.

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That is why I write today. A year ago, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 8 — a bill that would require background checks on all gun sales across America — with bipartisan support in Congress and overwhelming support from the American people. Since then, an estimated 38,000+ Americans have been killed by gun violence. Twice that many have been wounded. But the bill has languished on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk, because he has refused to even give it a vote in the Senate. Our senator, Joni Ernst, has followed McConnell’s lead, failing to support background checks and shifting the blame for gun violence onto mental health issues.

Fortunately, this November, we have a chance to hold them accountable for this failure to keep us safe. Here in Iowa, Sen. Ernst is up for reelection — and while the NRA might reward her for obstructing lifesaving policies, I am confident that the people of Iowa will not.

As for me, I’ll never forget the trauma of that terrible day three decades ago. But I promise you this: I’ll also never stop advocating for the very laws and support I needed then. And, come November, I’ll be fighting to elect a Senator who will fight for survivors like me.

Sarah E. Melhado is a survivor fellow in the Everytown for Gun Safety Survivor Network. She lives in Iowa.

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