Gendered firearms regulations: Assessing the risk of gender-based violence during firearm licence applications
By Boris Colinas, with Emilia Dungel and Paul Holtom
(Trigger warning: domestic violence, GBV, IPV)
Femicide and firearms
When women are killed it tends to happen in the domestic sphere, and the perpetrator is often a current or former partner (Alvazzi del Frate, 2011, p. 114; Shaw, 2013, p. 18). Depending on the circumstances, such violence can be categorized as femicide, which is a form of gender-based violence (GBV). Often simplified as the murder of a woman ‘because she is a woman’, femicide occurs when ‘gender is central to the act of killing’, such as through dowry and so-called ‘honour’ killings, intimate-partner violence, sexual violence, or the murder of women engaged in sex work (Alvazzi del Frate, Hideg, and LeBrun, 2020, p. 8).
Previous research by the Small Arms Survey and others notes a direct correlation between femicide rates and the percentage of femicides committed with firearms (see, for example, Alvazzi del Frate, 2011, p. 131). An analysis of femicide in 24 countries found that firearms were used in one-third of recorded femicides, while data also revealed that firearms were used in more than 60 per cent of femicides in Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (Nowak, 2012, p. 4). If firearms are often used to commit murders where gender is central to such crimes, what can countries do to address this specific form of GBV?
Regulations to assess firearms-related femicide (and other GBV) risks
Many countries require civilians to obtain a licence before acquiring a firearm. National authorities assess a person’s suitability for acquiring a firearm before issuing or refusing such a licence, taking into account the applicant’s mental health history and criminal record, and the use for which the firearm is being obtained (Parker, 2011). In the same vein, several countries in different parts of the world use their civilian firearms possession legislation and regulations to address the supply dimension of the gendered dynamics of armed violence. The regulatory frameworks in these countries encourage — or in some cases require — national authorities to assess the risk that firearm licence applicants could use a firearm to commit violence against their current or former partners and family members before determining whether to issue or refuse a licence. A brief overview of this regulatory approach in four countries is provided below.
Canada’s 1995 Firearms Act makes specific reference to an individual’s eligibility for a firearm licence being dependent on possible previous convictions under the Criminal Code, including violence against another person, while other eligibility factors include treatment for a violence-related mental illness and a history of behaviour that includes violence against others, whether threatened, attempted, or actual (Canada, 1995, art. 5(2)). A 2019 amendment includes in these factors ‘an offence in the commission of which violence was used, threatened or attempted against the person’s intimate partner or former intimate partner’ (Canada, 2019, ch. 9, s. 2(e)). Thus, national authorities can interview neighbours, community and social workers, and spouses and common-law partners — current or former — to ascertain an individual’s eligibility for a firearm licence or suitability to own a firearm.
A 1996 amendment to the New Zealand Arms Act (1983) gave commissioned police officers grounds to deny a firearm licence application if the applicant had been convicted of offences contained in the Domestic Violence Act of 1995. The enactment of the Family Violence Act of 2018 led to further updates to the Arms Act in 2019. As a result, the amended Arms Act provides national authorities with the power to refuse a licence to an applicant if ‘(a)there are grounds under the Family Violence Act 2018 for the making against that person [that is, the applicant] of an application for a protection order; or (b) that such an order is in force … in respect of that person’ (New Zealand, 1983/2019, art. 27A).
Sierra Leone’s 2012 Arms and Ammunition Act stipulates that licences for civilian firearms possession shall not be granted to those with ‘a history of family violence whether or not it resulted in a criminal conviction’ (Sierra Leone, 2012, art. 12(1)(c)). Furthermore, a licence can be revoked by the national authorities if the ‘licencee is convicted of any crime of violence to the person [sic] or under investigation for any domestic violence related offence’ (art. 13(c)). Like Canada, Sierra Leone’s national authorities can assess the licence applicant’s eligibility for a firearm licence or that person’s behaviour as it might pertain to firearm ownership by gathering testimony from ‘any person of note in his [sic] community, and in the case of applicants in the Provinces by the Paramount Chief of the chiefdom to which the application relates’ (art. 12(1)(f)).
The South Africa Firearms Control Act of 2000 (amended 2004) permits the national authorities to ascertain whether an applicant for a firearm permit ‘has been served with a protection order in terms of the Domestic Violence Act, 1998 … or visited by a police official concerning allegations of violence in the applicant’s home’ (South Africa, 2004, art. 14(1)(a)). The national authorities are also encouraged to check whether ‘in the past two years the applicant has experienced a divorce or separation from an intimate partner with whom the applicant resided where there were written allegations of violence’ (art. 14(1)(f)).
This blog post provides a snapshot of regulations that have only relatively recently been introduced into national regulatory frameworks dealing with civilian firearm possession in order to address firearms-related acts of femicide and other forms of GBV. The next step is to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of these measures in the coming years. Monitoring of this kind needs to examine a large sample of countries and use both quantitative and qualitative approaches.
While efforts to address the supply side of the role of firearms in GBV in general and femicide in particular are welcome, these efforts only go so far. To make a real impact, a more comprehensive approach is needed. This is a struggle that truly begins at home.
Boris Colinas is a research assistant at the Small Arms Survey, where he works on gender and small arms control, and the mapping of small arms control measures. Emilia Dungel, communications coordinator, and Paul Holtom, senior researcher, work with Boris at the Survey.
This blog post is based on a Conventional Arms Control in the Commonwealth Initiative (CACCI) Briefing Note on the civilian possession of small arms in the Commonwealth. The Survey contributed several such Briefing Notes to the CACCI initiative. It is published here as part of the Survey’s Gender Lens for Arms Control Support and Sustainability (GLASS) project — made possible through the generous support of the Government of Canada.
Blog posts are intended as a way for various Small Arms Survey collaborators and researchers to discuss small arms- and armed violence-related issues, and do not necessarily reflect the views of either the Small Arms Survey or the Government of Canada.
 Another amendment refers to any threat of violence made online (Canada, 2019, ch. 9, s. 3(2.1)).
Alvazzi del Frate, Anna. 2011. ‘When the Victim Is a Woman.’ In Geneva Declaration Secretariat. Global Burden of Armed Violence 2011. Geneva: Geneva Declaration Secretariat, ch. 4, pp. 113–44. <http://www.genevadeclaration.org/fileadmin/docs/GBAV2/GBAV2011_CH4.pdf>
— , Gergely Hideg, and Emile LeBrun. 2020. Gender Counts: Assessing Global Armed Datasets for Gender Relevance. Briefing Paper. Geneva: Small Arms Survey. <http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/T-Briefing-Papers/SAS-BP-Gender-Counts.pdf>
Canada. 1995. Firearms Act. Amended 2019. <https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/f-11.6/>
— . 2019. Firearms Act. ‘Amendments Not in Force’, pp. 72–81. <https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/f-11.6/>
New Zealand. 1983/2019. Arms Act. Amended 2019. <http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1983/0044/latest/DLM72622.html>
Nowak, Matthias. 2012. Femicide: A Global Problem. Research Note №14. Geneva: Small Arms Survey. February. <http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/H-Research_Notes/SAS-Research-Note-14.pdf>
Parker, Sarah. 2011. ‘Balancing Act: Regulation of Civilian Firearm Possession.’ In Small Arms Survey. Small Arms Survey 2011: States of Security. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 260–309.
Radford, Jill and Diana E.H. Russell, eds. 1992. Femicide: The Politics of Women Killing. New York: Twayne.
Shaw, Margaret. 2013. ‘Too Close to Home: Guns and Intimate Partner Violence.’ In Small Arms Survey. Small Arms Survey 2013: Everyday Dangers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 16–45.
Sierra Leone. 2012. The Arms and Ammunition Act, 2012. <http://www.sierra-leone.org/Laws/2012-09.pdf>
South Africa. 2004. ‘Regulations 2004.’ Firearms Control Act, 2000. <https://www.saps.gov.za/services/flash/firearms/legislation/gov_notice_english.pdf>