November 6, 2015
By Renée Peck
Tania Tetlow is a Tulane law professor specializing in domestic violence and violence against women generally. She's from new Orleans, and has been at Tulane for the past decade. Before that, she was a federal prosecutor. We sat down this summer to talk to her about what she does and its relationship to gun violence in the city.
What is your association with guns?
As a federal prosecutor I worked on a lot of cases of felons in possession of guns. We tried to really focus on the defendants who had the longest rap sheets and whom we thought the most dangerous to the world. And then as someone running a domestic violence clinic, guns just came up all the time in our cases. Our clients would describe to us that their husbands collected guns, that they would sometimes point those guns at them and threaten to kill them, but often more subtle things like clean them in front of the family in ways that were threatening. What we know statistically is that ownership of or access to a gun is one of the big indicators of whether you are going to die in a domestic violence situation.
Where do domestic violence and the gun conversation intersect?
The danger of the violence escalating to the point of murder is made a lot worse when somebody has the ability to access a gun. It just makes it much quicker and easier. I think that’s generally true in this country. We have lots of issues with violence, but the thing that gives us this extraordinary murder rate is because we have so many guns available to so many people. So what might be a crime of passion just takes half a second and a pull of the finger.
Domestic violence is less about the level of violence and more about the level of control. It's using violence as a method to have utter power over another human being and often their children. As such, we we worry less about how violence is being used than about how strict and total the control is. That’s what predicts murder.
Do you have a gun?
I do have a gun. When a defendant I was prosecuting threatened to have me killed and had a hit put out on me, the FBI lent me a gun, which did not make me feel much safer. I have mixed feelings about it.
Have you ever experienced violence in New Orleans?
Growing up in this city I’ve had people close to me arm-robbed, raped at gunpoint, murdered. It is part of this city and it is something that is a burden shared much more widely here becausewe live so close together in ways that makes people understand and care about it. Because it does not just happen to poor people.
You’ve lived in Boston and other cities. Is New Orleans different in terms of violence?
New Orleans is different in that our level of murder is extreme.... What is atypical in New Orleans is the level of disorganized violence. The level of people just shooting each other because someone looked at them funny or they were arguing over something small. That kind of irrational violence is much higher here than in other parts of the country.
I think violence begets violence. We have kids who are exposed to unbelievable rates of violence out on the street in front of their homes, but also -- and this is the part that gets ignored -- unbelievable rates of violence within their homes. So there are not too many teenagers shooting each other on corners who are not growing up in homes where they’re watching their mamas get beaten up by daddy or mama’s boyfriend and not also getting hit themselves. When they hit the corner of zero tolerance of violence on the street, then we rage about that. But what these kids know is that they grow up in homes where no one seems to care about the violence that they witness and experience almost daily, and that part of the story really gets ignored.
How extensive is domestic violence in New Orleans?
Domestic violence is hidden and underreported. What we know nationally is that one out of four women in the U.S. will get beaten in her lifetime by a partner. Louisiana has often been the No. 1 state for women murdered by men, and has often been the No. 1 state for children murdered as well..
Why is domestic violence so prevalent?
In our custody laws and practices we tend to not consider family violence the way that we should. We are so aspirationally excited about encouraging fathers to participate, which we absolutely need to and should do; but we can’t do that and lower the standards so low that even if they’re violent thug, we encourage them to get involved in their kids' lives.
Batterers tend to fight for custody for all the wrong reasons and they fight for custody more often than good nonviolent fathers do. And they tend to win custody more often than good non-violent fathers do. So there are a lot of aspects of this that are hidden of why people end up stuck. If you can escape with the clothes on your back so be it, but if you have to leave behind a hostage… In the cycle of family violence, that’s really the battle. It’s very hard with a kid who’s grown up witnessing or experiencing it – and the psychological seems to be exactly the same regardless – it’s very hard to undo that damage later in life.
What we know is that witnessing violence, witnessing domestic violence in the home in particular, literally changes the wiring of the brain in ways that may be permanent, and are certainly pretty well ingrained by early childhood. It also literally changes the structure of DNA, such that these kids are going to grow up with shorter life expectancies, more prone to chronic illness. It does damage in way that we are only beginning to understand biologically and psychologically. So we have to protect those kids.
Does this violence beget violence later in life?
It is what is fueling all the other violent crime that we have on the street. Kids who grow up with violence aren’t just beating their own wife and kid in ways that the world doesn’t seem to much care about, but they’re also hurting people out on the street. And that’s when we start to care. But until we care and back up that care to when they were a kid cowering in the corner trying to protect their mother, we’re never going to solve this problem. And when you add to the mix access to guns, you make that problem not just about this extraordinary widespread violence, you make it a problem of murder,
Are we doing anything to stop this problem?
Is it a matter of public will?
I think the vast majority of people absolutely want to change how this works. And we’re not talking about getting to the point of threatening people’s ability to hunt or have guns for self-protection. We’re talking about just basic levels of you don’t let people have extraordinary assault rifles or silencers or crazy cop-killing bullets. The obvious stuff, right? The clear obvious low-hanging fruit that the vast majority of people want to do and somehow our structure of government is such that it’s not happening.
What do you think about current gun control laws?
I have a husband who is British and he just can’t even fathom how loose that they are and how prevalent guns are. Right now there is not much of any gun control. What we do restrict is that if you’re a felon you can’t have a gun. If you have a domestic violence order against you or a misdemeanor domestic violance conviction, you can’t have a gun. But that’s a law that is really not enforced much because it’s only federal. Louisiana just passed a parallel state law, so we’ll see how that goes. But in general at this point we have so many guns and so much ammunition floating out there that it's hard to imagine how we’d ever get it back.
Is there a way to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people?
We have so many of them it would be like keeping chocolate out of the hands of the wrong people. It’s so prevalent, it's hard for me to imagine, but the fact that we’re not even trying is, to me, horrific.
How do you feel about background checks for gun purchasers?
We need to do that. ATF right now has to go back when they find that somebody has lied on their form and try to collect that gun. As opposed to just asking people to wait. I cannot imagine the situation where you legitimately have to be in a rush to get a gun. That’s usually not a very good sign.
We have this gaping loophole of the gun shows. It’s so easy to buy a gun privately. If you buy your shotgun at WalMart, you have to fill out the form. All of the rest of the gun trade is happening absolutely on the side.
What needs to change?
There are not many ways the criminal justice system can be proactive. It can’t fix the economy; it can’t fix the school systems. But what it can do is prioritize family violence, because that is the root of all other violence. So if you start protecting mothers and children from violence in the home, you have both prioritized that violent crime, but also stopped another generation of violent criminals from being raised in that abuse. If we paid attention to that in the ways that we prioritize, for example, drugs, if we pour as much resources into that, if it became the thing we care most about, then we could have this double impact of protecting kids and also protecting these future generations of victims from kids who grow up to be violent in predictable ways, given what they’ve experienced.
What are some practical steps to making that happen?
In a world where we incarcerate people for non-violent crimes, if we instead actually put people in jail for beating their family members and made that a priority, both as a way to make that stop and keep their victims safe, but also as a signal to the world that we do care about this, then we could have the kind of cultural shift we need. In the same way that, with drunk driving, we sent the message that you could really go to prison for drunk driving, that it was a crime we were going to take seriously. That accomplished this extraordinary change in our attitudes.
In our society, we don’t much care about family violence and we are very lenient with accepting unbelievable numbers of guns. And that’s a wicked combination.
The Gun Report is a series of conversations about gun safety in New Orleans sponsored by NolaVie and 91%, John Richie's upcoming documentary about background checks for gun purchasers. We want you to join the conversation with personal anecdotes and commentary. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at email@example.com.