Women Deserve to Live in a Nation Free of Gun Violence: The Ms. Q&A with Kris Brown

Gun Rights

“I believe America stands for the proposition that you can walk down the street and not get shot,” Kris Brown, president of Brady United Against Gun Violence, told Ms. “And I’ll never stop fighting for that.”

A woman holds a childs hand while walking past vases containing flowers near the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., on June 5, 2022. Each vase in the memorial represents one of the 45,222 Americans who died from gun violence in 2020. (Stefani Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images)

This fall, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in U.S. v. Rahimi, a case about a Texas law that prevents individuals subject to domestic violence restraining orders from possessing firearms. In a country where an abuser’s access to a firearm makes it five times more likely that he will kill his victim, where gun ownership continues to increase and where domestic violence and mass shootings are fundamentally entwined, a ruling overturning the Texas law (and making similar laws impermissible) would be disastrous.

Kris Brown, president of Brady United Against Gun Violence, knows that the stakes are high. Having dedicated her career to curbing gun violence, she is familiar with the way firearm access exacerbates domestic violence—what she calls “a uniquely American crisis.” But she is not hopeless.

Last week, Brown spoke with Ms. to help readers understand how we should be thinking about U.S. v. Rahimi, the way she approaches the link between intimate partner violence and gun violence, and where she finds her optimism.

“There are people alive today, walking around, who would not be with us but for these laws,” said Kris Brown, pictured here in Nov. 2, 2017 in New York City. (Desiree Navarro / Getty Images)

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Morgan Carmen: Because this is Ms. I would love to start by asking, why is gun violence a feminist issue?

Kris Brown: Well, so many different reasons.

I would say speaking personally, as a woman, just the knowledge that about 70 women every single month are [killed] by domestic violence in this country. It is a staggering and uniquely American epidemic. And [one] that really, women do not experience anywhere else in the world except in the United States. So for me, that’s a major motivating factor. …

In the U.S., over 1 million women alive today have been shot or shot at by an intimate partner. That’s insane. And the mere presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation makes it about five times as likely that a woman will be killed. So all of [the] aspects of domestic violence, violence against women, very much inform my perspective as a female leader around this issue, as does the reality of the looming decision by the Supreme Court [which] will be decided this term: the United States v. Rahimi case, in which the Fifth Circuit basically said that the long-standing rule that a [convicted] domestic violence abuser forfeits their Second Amendment rights … is unconstitutional. That basically would completely take away the right of domestic violence victims to ensure that their abuser cannot purchase a gun, track them down and kill them. 

So it’s a very, very high stakes, potentially very dangerous decision that the Supreme Court is going to be reviewing that will have a material impact on women, on survivors, children and, obviously, our broader community. 

About 70 women every single month are [killed] by domestic violence in this country.

Kris Brown

Carmen: In terms of U.S. v. Rahimi, what do you think we should expect? And what are you most worried about?

Brown: [The amicus brief we filed in the Rahimi case] sets out very clearly why the law at issue in the Fifth Circuit is entirely constitutional, and why the lives and public safety of America’s citizens are put at risk—and materially put at risk—if the Supreme Court were to uphold the Fifth Circuit’s decision. 

If it finds that this particular law, that says that if you’re convicted of domestic violence, [you] forfeit your rights to a firearm. If that law is unconstitutional, then what we need to worry about as a gun violence prevention movement is that virtually every public safety law we have in effect is potentially at risk to be litigated and overruled. 

It’s almost limitless—because it’s such an extreme decision—if they find that there is no constitutional underpinning for removing guns from a domestic violence abuser then we will see a torrent of litigation by the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the NRA seeking to overturn every single public safety law with respect to firearms that has been enacted. 

So, the stakes are very, very high for us, but I do, to be honest, I feel pretty good about our chances of getting, not a unanimous decision, but a 5-4 decision from this Court, at least.

Carmen: And so, if the Court overturns the Fifth Circuit decision, where does that leave Brady legal? 

Brown: Well, we’re litigating a lot of different cases at the moment. So if they overturned the Rahimi decision, obviously, it’s not just the overturning because, as you know … the impact of a Supreme Court decision in and of itself on litigation across the country in every single circuit is huge, not always just for what the narrow holding is …

What we’re hoping for is not simply that the Court will issue a one-page decision that says Rahimi is overturned, and the lower court’s decision before the Fifth Circuit stands. What we would like to see is a clarification from the Court—which is really what the Rahimi decision provides to the Court, on how the Second Amendment should be balanced with reasonable public safety in mind. And the reason we’re in this conundrum a little bit, I don’t know how to think of a better word than that, is because of the Bruen decision

Carmen: For our readers, could you explain Bruen and why it matters?

Brown: Yes, absolutely … A plaintiff, a gun owner, brought a claim [against] New York’s concealed carry—its permitting system for when you could carry a gun in [public]—that had been in effect for about 109 years… [He] lost ultimately, in the Second Circuit. The Second Circuit heard the case and said, ‘No, this permitting system that New York has is constitutional. And it’s fair and reasonably protects the public safety and does not violate the Second Amendment.’ …

The plaintiff then appealed that decision to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court granted cert [last year]. And Justice Thomas writing for the majority, and was a 6-3 decision, held that New York’s permitting system that had been in effect for 109 years was unconstitutional, that it violated the Second Amendment, and it put unreasonable restraints on individuals’ basic rights under the Second Amendment to carry a gun for self-protection in public, anywhere, anytime. 

… What Justice Thomas did, which never before in the history of the Second Amendment has this been the test, [was say], ‘Well, I know historically that the Court has determined the constitutionality of actions with respect to firearms in a balancing way.’ Right, you look at the interest of public safety and you balance that against the Second Amendment right to carry, own and possess a firearm …

What Thomas said is, ‘Well, that’s not really the test for the Second Amendment. I’m going to enunciate a new test.’

And here’s the test: That test says, ‘I’m going to examine the law at issue, in this case the permitting system, and I’m going to, in an originalist framework, look back in the colonial era and see if there was a similar kind of law or regime in effect, and I can only hold the law at issue as constitutional… [if] there is a historical corollary.’ And quite frankly, from my perspective, the Supreme Court cherry-picked the historical record. … 

And so that new test has resulted in a huge number of cases across this country, seeking to invalidate a large number of public safety laws. The Rahimi case is just one more example. And when the Fifth Circuit looked at that case… [and they asked] ‘was there a law in colonial America that said, ‘if you’re a domestic violence abuser, you will have your firearm removed?’ And if we can’t find evidence of those laws, then we’re going to hold this law in modern day life as unconstitutional.’ And that’s what the Fifth Circuit did. 

Now, let’s just remember that in the colonial era, basically, women had the same rights as chattel. It’s not a shock that we didn’t have laws similar to what we have today …

[W]hat we want the Court to do in Rahimi is clarify how lower courts are supposed to be examining and evaluating the right to own a firearm with the right of Americans in our society to exist, in other words, not to be shot, in other words, the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness. Because we think those rights are also very fundamental … just as much as someone’s right to own and possess a firearm. And that’s what’s at stake in this decision. And obviously, the right of women to exist, the right of women to be living their lives free of the fear of being shot is front and center in this case.

And obviously, the right of women to exist, the right of women to be living their lives free of the fear of being shot is front and center in this case.

Kris Brown

Carmen: I want to pivot slightly to talk about Brady advocacy more generally. How does the fact that the vast majority of mass shooters kill family members or partners and/or have a history of domestic violence impact the way that Brady approaches combating this kind of violence?

Brown: It’s harrowing—the number of domestic violence victims who have come forward to share their story, even through the pain. What we’ve learned in that process is the importance of giving a platform to victims of domestic violence, many of whom feel robbed of their voice, robbed of the ability to speak and influence. And part of Brady’s job has always been to lift up the voices of survivors.

For many [survivors] that I talk to in the movement, it is the presence of a loaded and unsecured firearm in the home and their desire to protect their kids that led them to stay in a very, very dangerous situation even longer because they were afraid of, you know, retaliation if they left…

You know, our goal as Brady is not simply to litigate these cases, or too often—and I have several really tragic examples of this—to represent the estates of women who have been gunned down and killed by domestic abusers who have obtained those weapons unlawfully. Our goal as an organization is to advocate to stop that violence from ever happening in the first place. And lifting up and raising the voices of victims and survivors and women across the country who really want to make a difference around this issue…

The domestic violence situation in the United States and its relation to firearms is a scourge, it’s a uniquely American crisis. And it’s not going to be solved by one law or two laws or one piece of enforcement. It’s going to take, just like other kinds of public health epidemics—and that’s what this is—a combination of better laws, better enforcement of the law. And that’s really what this rule is doing. We need better enforcement of the law. And it’s also going to take culture change, it’s going to take platforming and giving voice to people who are too often victims or victimized by individuals who have ready access to firearms.  

A woman holds up a sign at a protest to end gun violence in schools at the Colorado State Capitol on March 24, 2023, in Denver, Colorado. The protest comes on the heels of two shootings at East High School over the last month where one student was shot and killed outside the school in February and two administrators were shot and injured inside the school a month later. (Michael Ciaglo / Getty Images)

Carmen: Are there any pending legislative solutions that make you hopeful about getting guns out of those homes and getting guns from the individuals with histories of domestic violence?

Brown: Well, there are a number of different kind of related sort of things that are happening that do give me a lot of hope.

One is that we have managed to kind of move into an area that is equally kind of troubling where domestic violence abusers can often, more easily than they should, be able to obtain firearms and skirt the law. You’re not supposed to be able to buy a firearm under law—the Rahimi decision has put this at risk—if you’re a convicted domestic violence abuser. But there are gaps in the background check system. If you’re a federally licensed firearm dealer in this country, under the Brady law, you have to conduct a background check. And right now the law still says in states all across the country, even with the Rahimi decision (because it’s on appeal), if you are a convicted domestic violence abuser, you will be a prohibited purchaser and a federally licensed firearm dealer is not supposed to sell you the gun. So that should stop that kind of abuser from easily accessing guns, everywhere. 

But here’s the rub: About one in five guns sold today is sold with no background check at all. If you’re a convicted domestic violence abuser, you want to potentially try to buy in a situation where the entity is not conducting a background check. And why is that happening? It’s because [the guns are] not being sold by a federally licensed firearm dealer. [They’re] being sold by someone who’s skirting the law and not becoming a licensee, typically, because they’re selling at gun shows or over the Internet …

One of the things I’m most proud of, and this is really, really important: We now finally have someone at the helm of ATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, [Steven M. Dettelbach] who is not captive to the gun industry. He’s the new director, Brady supported his nomination. We helped ensure that he was confirmed by the United States Senate … and never in the history of the ATF has ever had a leader who has not been nominated, put forward and hand-selected by the gun industry itself.

Steve Dettelbach is someone who is a seasoned prosecutor and made a number one priority of doing as much as he can to ensure that every gun sold in America is sold with a background check. So [he put out a] regulation which is about 200 pages… Brady helped put it together and it’s now out for notice and comment. And it is estimated that between 30,000 and 300,000 sellers of firearms would be subject to this regulation. That more than anything will nearly close the loophole in the law that allows about one in five guns sold today to be sold with no background check at all.

There are people alive today, walking around, who would not be with us but for these laws.

Kris Brown

Carmen: What keeps you personally going in this fight that often feels hopeless at a time when we’re seeing record number numbers of school shootings, judicial and legislative roadblocks? We’ve seen two school shootings at UNC alone since the school year started. What would you want to tell students who are terrified? And other people in this fight, who are scared and hopeless, about what keeps you going?

Brown:  I mean, I’m a lifelong advocate. My mother ran for office, and my father was a federal employee who fought against housing discrimination. So I would say it’s in my DNA. And I believe in the power of the people, and I don’t say that lightly.

But I’ve never seen the kind of outpouring, the intensity of emotion, the demand for change that was intergenerational, but especially led by younger people … after Parkland. That March reshaped our entire movement, it truly did. And a number of very important laws [passed] that never would have without so many people saying “I’ve had enough.” 

And I’ll just give you one example of what I mean by that… [Red flag laws], laws that allow family members, law enforcement (it depends on the state) to seek an emergency protective order to remove firearms from an individual at risk to him or herself or to others.

At the time that Parkland happened, a handful of states had passed these laws, and it was always a huge uphill battle. Because the other side, the National Rifle Association and NSSF, [the National Shooting Sports Foundation], argued that the laws violated the due process rights of gun owners. And some legislatures were convinced by that. After Parkland, we now have 24 states and the District of Columbia that have those laws in effect. And ironically, in the state of Florida—I say ironically, because Ron DeSantis is about as hostile a governor as we can find on the issue of guns—but the state of Florida passed its own extreme risk protection law and has among the highest numbers of Extreme Risk Protection Orders that have been put into effect anywhere in the country.

And the police will report to the public about the kinds of threats that have come in, and the number of guns confiscated. And it’s huge… that’s what keeps me going. If I can know that the advocacy of Jim and Sarah Brady—[founders of Brady United]—led, for example, to the passage of the Brady law. And we know that that law has stopped [more than] 4 million sales of firearms to prohibited purchasers. There are people alive today, walking around, who would not be with us but for these laws. And that makes all the difference to me, that keeps me going no matter how hard it is. 

I was on the National Mall yesterday with mothers who lost their children at school from Uvalde, with mothers [like] Joaquin Oliver’s mom and his father [and] with Kristin Song whose son was killed at home with a firearm. And it’s heartbreaking to be with these people who I consider now friends.

But if they can lift up their voice to try to [save] other children after their children have been killed in these awful ways, well then most certainly I can. And it feels like something to me that’s frankly, deeply patriotic. It bothers me that the other side [has] a false narrative … They wrap themselves in the flag, while they put each and every one of us at risk—[our] fundamental rights that I was taught in civics that I had. And I think I know, I’m informed and believe that what I’m doing is patriotic and reflects [a] kind of country [for] each and every one of us, regardless of our color, our creed, our economic circumstances. I believe America stands for the proposition that you can walk down the street and not get shot. And I’ll never stop fighting for that.

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