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Interview with Dr. April Zeoli

Policy Core Director at the Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention at the University of Michigan

Fund for a Safer Future, September 2023 Feature Interview: Dr. April Zeoli.

You’ve been doing research in firearms violence prevention, and specifically around domestic violence and intimate partner violence for 15+ years. What do we know now that when you were starting this work, we didn’t know? How has our understanding increased or improved?

I’m going to add a caveat the whole interview by saying we don’t know enough about anything <laugh>. But we do know a lot more than we used to.

We know a lot more than we used to about the nature of non-fatal firearm use in intimate partner violence. We know that non-fatal firearm uses in intimate partner violence are not uncommon – 3.4% of intimate partner violence events involve the use of a firearm. But intimate partner violence is so common that that ends up being almost 33,000 events a year. That is huge. 

We also know some of the policies that appear to make a difference in intimate partner homicide. Firearm restrictions that are attached to restraining orders appear to lower intimate partner homicide rates in states that have those laws. We had an inkling of that when I started. But more recently, researchers such as myself have looked into the differences between these state laws and whether some laws are more effective than others at protecting intimate partners. 

It looks like when laws cover dating partners under restraining order firearm restrictions (which the federal law and many state laws don’t), there’s an associated reduction in intimate partner homicide. When states include ex parte or emergency or temporary restraining orders, as orders that can carry firearm restrictions, we also see a reduction in intimate partner homicide. And when states have relinquishment provisions, which say a judge can or must require the newly prohibited person to turn in any guns they possess, we also see reductions in intimate partner homicide.

Where do you see big questions that still need to be explored?

One of the things I think that we really need to focus on at this point is intimate partner homicide of Black women. Black women are far and away more likely to be victims of intimate partner homicide than virtually every other demographic group. (I say virtually because indigenous populations probably have higher rates, but there are difficulties getting those numbers.) 

My research suggests that these laws may not be working for Black women. One study is not the end of the conversation, but we need to really zero in on what’s going on in this population and how to prevent these homicides. 

Talk about the other research projects that you’re working on. How do you investigate these questions?

One of the studies I’m conducting, funded by the Joyce Foundation, looks at domestic violence restraining order petitioners who have experienced gun-involved intimate partner violence – so exactly the population that might be affected by this policy we’ve been speaking about. 

Getting people into the study at the time that they’re petitioning for a restraining order means we can see whether the restraining orders are granted, whether they’re getting that firearm restriction (in some of the states that we are studying, the restriction is based on the judge’s discretion). And we can see whether that firearm restriction is implemented through relinquishment of guns. 

We’re doing this study in English and Spanish, and we’re working with culturally specific organizations that have reach into the populations we’re interested in. We’re working hard to make sure that we have good representation from those communities so that we can really figure out what’s going on there and see whether or not safety is improved.

You’re also doing studies about Extreme Risk Protection Orders, or ERPOs, right? 

We’re analyzing the data, but we’ve already released a publication on threats of multiple victim/mass shootings that we found in those case files. 10% of those case files were for threats to shoot and kill at least 3 people. And the most common location that someone threatened to commit a mass shooting was K through 12 schools. When they had specific people in mind to kill, the most common specific person was an intimate partner, and the intimate partner’s family members.

So we’re seeing intimate partner violence represented a lot in these ERPOs. And we have questions about the co-occurrence of domestic violence restraining orders and ERPOs – whether they co-occur, to what extent they co-occur, why people choose one and not the other, and who is choosing ERPO in cases of domestic violence? In some states, like Florida and Connecticut, only law enforcement can apply for ERPO. Are law enforcement filing for those with the consent and cooperation of the victim of intimate partner violence? Or are they doing this on their own because they think it’s going to increase safety?

We really don’t know how that’s playing out, and it’s important to know, particularly in intimate partner violence cases where so much control and power is taken away from the victim. And if the justice system replicates that – telling a victimized individual that even though they don’t want to have an ERPO, the justice system is going to order an ERPO anyway – we don’t really know what the consequences of that are. At the same time, we don’t want a person who might be homicidal to have a gun. So there’s a lot to weigh there and a lot to explore to figure out what’s the safest option. 

We’re also asking: What does that interaction with law enforcement look like and how can we make it more acceptable to the communities that are most affected by gun violence? When we’re talking about homicide, we’re talking about Black and brown communities, we’re talking about young Black men. When we’re talking about suicide, we’re often talking about rural older white men. Neither of these groups is very welcoming to involvement with law enforcement, for various longstanding reasons, particularly when it comes to removal of guns. So how do we make these interactions and ERPOs acceptable and accessible to those communities so that they do use it to save lives? Because that is the ultimate goal: to save lives.

You and your graduate students review these files – you code them and analyze the aggregate results. But you also actually encounter these stories of people’s lives. From that experience, what needs to be brought forward to make these stories real for the people who can actually change the policy?

What I told all my research assistants was that you are going to read about one of the worst days in a person’s life, and they are in many ways tragic stories. They are horrifying stories, extremely scary stories. And it’s weird, but you get attached in reading an ERPO case file even though it’s not particularly lengthy. The narratives that law enforcement or family and intimate partners write, these are real people they’re writing about. And I think that’s the key point. We know that these are real people and this is what they’re really going through. 

How do you see research actually affecting policy on these issues, where the politics can seem so stuck? What difference can the data make?

As far as affecting policy, these past two years have been outliers in terms of the changes to and ability to affect gun policy. We had the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision, which changes the test for determining whether a firearm restriction is constitutional. We had the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act enacted, which has a lot of great elements in it. And more local for me, here in the state of Michigan, we just passed three evidence-based gun policies when we hadn’t strengthened gun laws in a very long time.

In Michigan, though we had been loosening gun laws for a while, I’ve been talking to a lot of policymakers and staffers, explaining what the research shows and answering their questions about what other states are doing. And it’s been really gratifying to see people pay attention to the evidence, because in the end, I’m a researcher. I produce knowledge and then I share the knowledge. We’ve seen more and more, at least in Michigan and to some extent the federal government, research evidence is being paid attention to.

Learn more about Dr. Zeoli’s research

Reeping PM*, Klarevas LJ, Rajan S, Rowhani-Rahbar A, Heinze J, Zeoli AM, Goyal MK,

Zimmerman M, Branas CC. State firearm laws, gun ownership, and K-12 school shootings: Implications for school safety. Journal of School Violence. 2022; 21(2): 132-146. DOI: 10.1080/15388220.2021.2018332

Buggs S, Zeoli AM. Gun homicide research: What we know and where we need to go. Homicide Studies. 2022; 26(1): 11-26. DOI: 10.1177/10887679211048495

Zeoli AM, Kwiatkowski C*, Wallin M*, Brown K*. Criminal histories of intimate partner

homicide offenders. Homicide Studies. 2021. Online First. DOI: 10.1177/10887679211046866

Frattaroli S, Zeoli AM, Webster DW. Armed, prohibited and violent at home: Implementation and enforcement of restrictions on gun possession by domestic violence offenders in four U.S. localities. Journal of Family Violence. 2021; 36(5): 573-586. DOI: 10.1007/s10896-020-00241-6.

Zeoli AM, Paruk J, Branas CC, Carter PM, Cunningham R, Heinze J, Webster DW. Use of extreme risk protection orders to reduce gun violence in Oregon. Criminology and Public Policy. 2021; 20(2): 243-261. DOI: 10.1111/1745-9133.12544.

Zeoli AM, Paruk JK. Potential to prevent mass shootings through domestic violence firearm restrictions. Criminology and Public Policy. 2020; 19: 129-145. DOI: 10.1111/1745-9133.12475

Zeoli AM, Frattaroli S, Roskam K, Herrera A. Removing firearms from those prohibited from possession by domestic violence restraining orders: A survey and analysis of state laws. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse. 2019; 20(1): 114-125. DOI: 10.1177/1524838017692384.