Most domestic violence deaths involve guns

By Ashley Jordan and Stefani Zenteno Rivadineira
Capital News Service

It was a sleepy Tuesday morning in February 2014 when Kevin Dale Palmer broke into the home of his in-laws, Nancy and Terry Griffin, in the town of Glade Spring in far southwestern Virginia.

The day before, Palmer had been served a protective order filed by his wife, Kristin. But the court document could not protect the family from the storm of rage and bitterness that would end four lives.

Kristin Palmer moved into her parents’ home with her son, Griffin, less than a week before her death. In an affidavit, Kristin Palmer chronicled an eight-year saga of fear and abuse imposed on her and her son by Kevin Palmer.

“He is extremely volatile toward us whenever we do not adhere to his control,” the affidavit stated. “He has controlled us for years. I am continuously scared …”

Everyone’s worst fears were realized when Kevin Palmer committed his final act of control by killing his wife, their son and his mother-in law and then turning the gun on himself.

The shooting death of Kristin and her family may not be entirely surprising. According to Virginia’s chief medical examiner, almost two-thirds of intimate partner homicides in the commonwealth in 2013 involved firearms. About 85 percent of the victims were women.

In a study released in March, the medical examiner’s office said there were 2,037 deaths related to domestic violence in Virginia from 1999 through 2013. “A person died in a family or intimate partner homicide every three days in Virginia during the fifteen-year study period,” the report said.

It said guns were used in 55 percent of those deaths. “Across Virginia, firearms continue to be the fatal agent most often involved in family and intimate partner homicides.”

This is why advocates for the victims of domestic violence have been calling for gun-control legislation.

“When you look at the effects of domestic violence and guns on that intersection, it leads to women getting killed,” said Luisa Caro, a volunteer for the Virginia chapter of Moms Demand Action.

During this year’s legislative session, the General Assembly considered two bills that sought to restrict access in hopes of curbing domestic violence:

  • SB 909, filed by Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston, would have prohibited a person who had been served a protective order from possessing a firearm. Existing law prohibits such a person only from purchasing or transporting a firearm.
  • Senate Bill 943, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, would have prohibited a person who has been convicted of stalking, assault and battery of a family or household member, or sexual battery from possessing or transporting a firearm.

During a February press conference, Favola explained why she introduced her legislation: “This is a domestic violence prevention bill. If you vote against this bill, you are sending a very, very bad message to — I think — women and families, everybody in the commonwealth.”

Despite her appeal, both bills failed. SB 943 died in the Senate Finance Committee. SB 909 was killed by the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.

It is no coincidence that the chief sponsors of both bills were women: A recent poll by the Roanoke Institute for Policy and Opinion Research found that women were more likely than men in Virginia to favor gun laws such as requiring background checks for all firearm purchases.

Tina Wilson-Cohen, founder and CEO of a group called She Can Shoot, feels that way. Her organization teaches women to become proficient in firearms and self-defense. Wilson-Cohen has a history in firearm instruction and training. According to her résumé, she has worked in the U.S. Secret Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation and as a federal air marshal.

She said her ultimate goal in creating She Can Shoot was to arm women with competence. She is among the many Virginia women who favor certain firearm restrictions. During the legislative session, Wilson-Cohen was in full support of Favola’s bill, SB 943.

Wilson-Cohen said people often stereotype people who wish to be proficient in firearms, assuming they are “gun crazy.” However, Wilson-Cohen said not everyone deserves access to a firearm.

“A person who already demonstrated [crimes of stalking, sexual assault or domestic violence] and been convicted in the court of law should not be able to have firearm,” Wilson-Cohen said. “The court has convicted such persons of acting out such crimes … Combining this with a firearm only empowers the perpetrators, and it is dangerous.”

Working in law enforcement, Wilson-Cohen said, she got a first-hand look at domestic violence and other crimes.

“It’s very humiliating and embarrassing, and no one wants to talk about it,” she said. “I have found that even law enforcement are not highly educated when it comes to domestic violence or stalking.”

Wilson-Cohen advises women who are interested in protecting themselves with a firearm to meet with an instructor before they commit to a purchase.

“It is a very personalized item; it’s not ‘one size fits all,’” she said. “It’s like buying shoes: It has to fit the person’s needs and capabilities.”

When a gun is in the wrong hands, horrible things can happen — as evidenced in Kristin Palmer’s case.

Kristin endured years of physical and mental abuse from her husband. “He has kicked me, strangled me, tried to drown me, slapped me and dragged me by the hair during arguments,” Kristin said in her affidavit.

Kevin Palmer was reportedly a “survivalist” with more than 47 firearms in his possession.

On Feb. 8, 2014, Kevin Palmer inflicted severe abuse upon his son, Griffin Palmer, by grabbing his neck and striking him on the side head several times, according to a police report.

Griffin told authorities that on Feb. 14, 2014, his father asked him if he still planned on going to the military after he graduated high school. After Griffin responded “yes,” his father reportedly said, “I hope they don’t send you overseas — I want to kill you myself.”

Nine days later, Kevin Palmer carried out that threat, according to the Washington County Sheriff’s Department.

Unlike Kristen Palmer, Lisette Johnson survived being shot by her husband six years ago, and is now an advocate for domestic violence victims.

Johnson urged Virginia lawmakers to pass SB 909. She said the most dangerous time for a family is when a spouse is trying to leave the household and seeks a protective order. Under SB 909, if a court granted such an order, the alleged abuser would have to give up his firearms.

“To remove firearms from the perpetrator at that time gives the measure of safety,” Johnson said. “I would love to see that. I am not sure that is going to happen anytime soon.”

Such a law would protect more than women. Johnson noted that children and bystanders often are caught in the crossfire of domestic violence.

“By the grace of God, my children were not killed,” Johnson said. “It is a family issue at its core. So it’s a public safety issue — it is not a women’s issue.”

Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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