Lindsay K. Cloud, a College of Public Health doctoral candidate in health policy and health services research, is bringing a technique called legal epidemiology to an analysis of federal and state laws around intimate partner violence and firearms. The goal of her dissertation study is to identify what types of civil restraining-order restrictions on firearm access have made an impact in mitigating firearm-related morbidity and mortality in the United States.

“Are the laws on the books working?  If not, why?” Cloud asks. “We’re creating legal data that can be used to answer these questions.” 

Nearly half of female homicide victims are killed by current or former partners, and most of those cases involve guns. An average of 70 women a month are killed by their partners using a firearm in the United States. Firearm-related morbidity and mortality are higher where gun ownership is most prevalent and firearm laws are least restrictive. So Cloud’s team has embarked on a scientific study of laws across the nation, translating the specific ways those laws deal with IPV perpetrators’ access to guns into data that can be quantified and linked to population health.

Cloud, a lawyer who is deputy director of the Center for Public Health Law Research (CPHLR) at Temple’s Beasley School of Law, specializes in the emerging practice of legal epidemiology. Her study is the first to use this scientific legal mapping technique of policy surveillance to create these legal data. It involves systematically coding laws that authorize or require courts to prohibit offenders who are subject to domestic violence restraining orders (DVROs) and temporary restraining orders (TROs) from purchasing and possessing firearms. From 1991 to 2016, 38 states enacted a firearm prohibitor law through DVROs (37 states), TROs (20 states), or both (19 states). As of January 1, 2016, 13 states have yet to enact any DVRO or TRO firearm prohibitor law.

Examining states that do have firearm prohibitions, Cloud’s team of lawyers is coding each law’s characteristics. For example, who qualifies to file for DVRO or TRO firearm-prohibitor protection? Spouses, former spouses, individuals with children in common, dating partners, former dating partners? Many states (and the federal law) still exclude dating partners and former dating partners, a gap that is commonly known as the boyfriend loophole. “This a problem because dating partners do not pose less risk of firearm violence, and the changing nature of relationships over time has increased the risk pool—marriage rates have decreased, people are getting married later in life, and before the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, same-sex marriages were banned in many states, leaving individuals in the LGBTQ+ community without any protection,” Cloud explains.  

The first component of her study, a full assessment of existing laws without yet drawing any associations, is newly published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence. “Disarming Intimate Partner Violence Offenders: An In Depth Descriptive Analysis of Federal and State Firearm Prohibitor Laws in the United States, 1991-2016” is the first of four papers her dissertation will produce. It is co-authored with Nadya Prood, formerly the technical research coordinator at CPHLR, and Jennifer Ibrahim, interim dean of the College of Public Health.  

The next phase of the study—and of Cloud’s dissertation—will include updating the legal data through 2020 and comparing it with data on firearm homicide rates by intimate partner perpetrators. “That phase, if successful, will produce a full-blown legal evaluation,” she says.