Editorial Roundup: Iowa

Des Moines Register. June 26, 2022.

Editorial: Domestic violence ruins too many lives in Iowa to shrug it off without acting

Legislation doesn’t need to have definitive answers for every tragedy, but policies can effect change cumulatively to avert one tragedy here and another there.

When a man shot his ex-girlfriend and her friend to death and then killed himself in Ames this month, the only thing out of the ordinary was where he found the victims — in a church parking lot.

Had a fatal attack occurred at, say, the home of one of the women, attention probably would have lasted a few days before the case fell out of public consciousness and showed up in a tally of domestic violence deaths.

That kind of grim, implicit acceptance shouldn’t be so. We ought to be at least as discomfited hearing about the murders of any intimate partner and any bystander as we are learning that lives were cut short just outside a worship service in a crowded auditorium.

Iowa recorded 106 homicides in 2020; 18 of them were linked to domestic violence, according to the state attorney general’s office. Last year, there were 20 such deaths. Tens of thousands more Iowans, predominantly adult women, receive services after suffering domestic abuse every year.

Governments at all levels have tools to protect adults and children from domestic violence, even though they can’t identify in advance every single person who is a threat to partners or former partners. Governments can help social service agencies make temporary and permanent shelter easier to find. They can help survivors achieve economic independence and remove that motivation for returning to an abuser. They can craft narrowly targeted restrictions on firearms, a primary implement of domestic violence deaths.

Survivors “tell us time and again, if they can access the practical foundations of living, they have the ability to be safer,” said Lindsay Pingel, director of community engagement for the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, in a written statement.

In Iowa, these tools are used too little. The most recent legislative session took us backward, highlighted by a reduction in how long Iowans can receive unemployment benefits in most circumstances. That revision was counterproductive in other respects, but it’s easy to imagine scenarios where tension in a family spikes earlier, or where a person leaves an abuser, loses benefits and is buried in debt months earlier than under previous law.

Of course, any present debate involving economic independence or gun violence must acknowledge a one-two punch of devastating U.S. Supreme Court rulings at the end of last week. On Thursday, justices dismissed the relevance of contemporary considerations in assessing gun laws, and on Friday, they threw out 49 years of jurisprudence protecting women’s right to choose whether to end a pregnancy.

“Preventing a partner from having an abortion is abuse, and forcing a partner to stay pregnant is, unfortunately, an effective way of keeping them dependent and trapped in the relationship itself,” the National Network to End Domestic Violence wrote in May. Of course, children born into such a dynamic are very likely to endure hardship as result. The precise practical effect of the abortion ruling in Iowa is complicated and not yet determined, but the decision is unequivocally bad news for abortion rights.

When it comes to guns, the problem is less the specific New York state law that six justices invalidated and more their justification for doing so.

In 14 years since another landmark Second Amendment decision, the court ruled, most courts have wrongly assessed whether regulations are an appropriate means to achieve an important public interest. Instead, the only thing that matters is looking back to the adoption of the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Put another way, even the gun-friendly standard that Iowa Republicans are trying to add to the state constitution might actually be less permissive than the U.S. Constitution now requires.

Congress, for its part, passed substantive restrictions on gun access for the first time in decades late last week. The law will give states incentives to enact “red flag” laws that let judges order weapons taken away from people deemed to be threats to others or themselves. And it closes the so-called “boyfriend loophole,” which barred domestic violence offenders from buying guns only if they’d been married to or had children with their victims.

The law’s provisions aren’t so obviously on point to the Ames case that they would clearly save lives in a similar case. Allegations against Johnathan Whitlatch over the course of at least six years suggest, in hindsight, a pattern of mistreating women. But that history wasn’t taken into account in setting bond, when, two days before he killed the women, Whitlatch was arrested, the Ames Tribune’s Phillip Sitter reported. Whitlatch was suspected of harassing one of the women, his former girlfriend Eden Montang. A friend told Sitter that Whitlatch had sometimes discussed suicide; court records also mention a suicide concern in 2017.

Maybe a judge, under a red-flag provision with more teeth than current Iowa law, could have been persuaded to order Whitlatch to give up his weapons. Maybe that would have made it harder to kill Montang and Vivian Flores. Maybe enacting new laws to make housing and child care more affordable would help keep another survivor out of a would-be killer’s orbit. Legislation doesn’t need to have definitive answers for every tragedy, but policies can effect change cumulatively to avert one tragedy here and another there.

The question is what our state values most. Do we most value attempting to preserve life, and improving environments for survivors and children through investments in social safety nets and an equitable economy? Or do we most value removing every inconvenience associated with buying and carrying guns and enshrining the lowest possible tax rates for the privileged?