Domestic violence deaths are up in Colorado. The pandemic and firearms access are likely reasons why

Colorado Shooting
Thomas Peipert/AP Photo
A memorial is seen on Monday, May 10, 2021, outside a mobile home in Colorado Springs, Colo., where a shooting at a party took place a day earlier that killed six people before the gunman took his own life.

Deaths in domestic violence incidents surged in Colorado in 2021, with at least 91 people killed statewide as either the intended target, the perpetrator, or as an additional victim in 61 separate incidents.

The annual report from the Colorado Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board points to the COVID-19 pandemic as one likely driver of the increase in domestic violence killings.

“Although no studies to date have addressed DVF (domestic violence fatality) rates during the pandemic, research indicates a significant increase in the incidence of nonfatal DV (domestic violence) during the pandemic,” the report says in an executive summary. “It is likely the factors contributing to this increase are also impacting DVF rates.”

Attorney General Phil Weiser, who chairs the board, said policymakers need to continue to work on how to get firearms out of the hands of people likely to engage in violence.

“Eighty-one percent of the fatalities happen because of access to a firearm,” Weiser said. “A critical challenge we have to wrestle with is how can we better take firearms away from people who we know are a danger and people we know are a significant threat. We have a system of protection orders when we know someone is vulnerable. What we need to work on is to make sure those who are accused and likely to engage in violence actually have their firearms taken away from them.”

The intended victims and those who were killed but were not the initial target in the 2021 incidents range in age from just 1-month-old to 91. The number of people killed as intended targets, 45, is actually smaller than the combined number of perpetrators who died either through suicide (23) or through the intervention of law enforcement or civilians (9), along with the 14 who are described as collateral victims.

The report said that in the nine cases where police or bystanders intervened, the target of the domestic violence survived each time.

Most domestic violence victims identify as female, and most deaths resulted from gunshot wounds

The 91 deaths far exceed the largest number killed in a previous year since the board was formed in 2016 and began compiling homicide numbers from domestic violence incidents. In 2019, 70 people died in domestic violence cases.

Comparison from year to year is a little tricky though because the definition of domestic violence fatality has been tweaked. Authorities also acknowledge that, particularly in unsolved homicides, a domestic violence component may go undetected, making it all but impossible to create a definitive list.

But under any analysis, the circumstances of each case are uniquely heart-rending to families and gruesome, and some clear patterns emerge from the 2021 data:

  • 88 percent of domestic violence victims were identified as female
  • 90 percent of perpetrators were identified as male
  • 81 percent of the deaths resulted from gunshot wounds
  • Just more than half of the fatalities involved couples who were currently or formerly dating, while 48 percent were among married couples. A little more than one-quarter of those couples were broken up or estranged at the time of the homicide.

“Ultimately, this report underscores the need to continue the work to prevent DVFs,” the report said. “Continuing to collect and analyze statewide data is fundamental to assisting Colorado policymakers, advocates, and others by providing the information necessary to develop training and intervention strategies.”

Among the challenges presented by the 2021 cases that the board will continue to wrestle with is the indication actions intended to protect victims of domestic violence can actually prompt perpetrators in some cases.

“A perpetrator who is aware of pending legal action related to prior acts of DV can escalate existing patterns of abuse,” the report said. “This is particularly true where a perpetrator faces significant legal consequences in the case, creating a perceived loss of control and sense that they have nothing left to lose.”

The report cites a June 28, 2021, Aurora case in which a man killed his girlfriend on the day he was to appear in court to change his plea in an earlier domestic violence case involving the same woman. The man later killed himself.

The 2021 numbers are also elevated by a single incident on May 9 that year in Colorado Springs. On that day, a woman’s boyfriend arrived uninvited at a family birthday party and opened fire, killing six before killing himself. Three children hid in a bedroom during the shooting and avoided physical injury.

As for the role of COVID-19 in driving up numbers, the report cites a 2020 Michigan study that found 64 percent of those who experienced domestic violence said it was either brand new to the relationship or had become more severe since the start of the pandemic. 

What the report recommends to help, and what the legislature is doing

The report recommends that judicial officers receive more specific training in the social science behind domestic violence, in order to craft sentences that may help prevent future incidents. They also recommend that the attorney general’s office be made a clearinghouse to collect data on domestic violence fatalities from local law enforcement. 

Finally, the report recommends that the legislature help fund “firearms relinquishment” positions to better enforce Colorado law requiring individuals subject to a domestic violence protection order to surrender their firearms. The Denver District Attorney’s Office appointed a firearms investigator who recovered 141 firearms in 2021 and another 91 through October of last year by following up after courts ordered defendants to at least temporarily give up their guns. 

“Denver’s effort serves as one example of how to proactively implement firearm relinquishment,” the report said.

Democratic state Rep. Monica Duran, the House majority leader, is herself a victim of domestic violence. She said she plans on introducing legislation this year to permanently fund organizations that help victims of domestic violence. Duran also wants to propose legislation that would require judges to go through sensitivity training when dealing with DV cases.

“This issue is extremely important to me,” she said.