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The Obscene Difficulty of Depriving a Troubled White Man of a Gun

Five years before Darryl Varnum threatened to kill Representative Frederica Wilson, police were called to his Maryland home.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Darryl Varnum, a technology contractor for the Pentagon, is facing federal charges for threatening to kill Florida Democratic Representative Frederica Wilson over a vaccination bill. He’s a gun owner, which police knew, as they’d been called to his Maryland home by his wife in 2015. His wife told county sheriff’s deputies at the time that he owned “numerous guns,” though he only had one registered in his name, and the deputies found him in his garage with a rifle and a bottle of vodka, claiming members of the Taliban were on their way.

Many things about this are unsurprising: the fact that police encountered a white man, drunk with a gun, and took him to a hospital for a mental health evaluation rather than arresting or shooting him; the fact that neither Varnum’s direct employer, Sealing Technology, nor the Defense Information Systems Agency, have commented on that 2015 encounter or whether or not they will still employ Varnum; the fact that on his Facebook page, Varnum compared vaccinations to the Holocaust; the fact that a violent, unstable American man felt such liberty threatening to kill a woman of color that he said in his voicemail to Wilson, “I hope the fucking FBI, CIA, and everybody else hears this shit.” Perhaps the only surprising thing is that the federal government cared enough about a woman of color to press charges in this case.

Varnum hasn’t and likely won’t have his ability to own guns curtailed. Under Maryland state law it’s impossible to get someone’s gun rights curtailed unless an individual such as one in Varnum’s position has been confined to a mental hospital for over 30 days or there’s an actual conviction for a felony—a major source of frustration for both gun control and domestic violence victims’ advocates.

There’s no reported record of Varnum ever having been violent with his wife, though she was the one who called the police about him in 2015. This sort of scenario, however, is exactly the type many victims’ and gun control advocates say ought to provoke some sort of review of an individual’s gun licenses. Living with an unstable, angry partner with access to guns is notoriously unsafe for American women. In the U.S., a woman is shot by a current or former partner every 16 hours. Guns make domestic violence situations far more fatal: Victims are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser has access to a gun. Abusers often use guns to control and coerce victims, even when they never pull the trigger.

Criminologists and security experts have also started focusing on early, domestically reported cases, because the danger posed by violent individuals isn’t limited to their spouses, partners, and exes: Out of 46 mass shootings from 2015 through 2017, more than half of the perpetrators had a known history of domestic violence. As Melissa Jeltsen, a HuffPost reporter who covers domestic violence wrote in 2017, “It’s worth noting the connection, as researchers have identified the key warning signs of abusers who are likely to kill in the future. They share remarkably similar traits: They have histories of strangling their partners, stalking and death threats. And, crucially, they have access to firearms.”

Even though data has shown unequivocally that when guns are taken away from abusers, fewer women die, American law currently does not afford such safety to women. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has expired, and in March the NRA came out against the new iteration up for reauthorization.

Under existing federal law, people convicted of domestic violence can’t own a gun—but that only applies to spouses, ex-spouses and family members. The version of the bill that the NRA opposed would expand that prohibition to include boyfriends or dating partners as well, and to people convicted of stalking misdemeanors, which domestic violence experts say is a common precursor to more serious violence.

While the latest VAWA was passed by the House in April, it’s currently being ignored by the Senate—one among many recent data points suggesting that women are not valued by our current government or its supporters. As Elaina Plott pointed out for The Atlantic last week, the three-word chants at President Trump’s rallies only ever seem to target his female opponents. Men may get petty nicknames, but it’s women who are on the receiving end of frothing mobs screaming for them to be locked up, or sent back where they came from. And it’s effective: “‘Lock her up!’ is as identifiable with Trumpism as ‘Build the wall!,’ and the chant continues at rallies to this day, even as Clinton, true to Trump’s wishes, has faded into the background,” Plott wrote. The gendered language individual supporters use is also telling: At a recent rally, 60-year-old Memphis-based anti-abortion activist Randall Terry referred to Representative Ilhan Omar and the other congresswomen Trump was targeting as “these wenches, these disrespectful wenches [who] criticize our country incessantly.”

In this sort of environment, it’s not surprising that someone unhinged enough to liken vaccination to the Holocaust felt perfectly at ease leaving a congresswoman of color a voicemail threatening to shoot her. It’s not the first time Wilson has received death threats since Trump took office: After Wilson accurately described and criticized Trump’s remarks to a veteran’s grieving widow in October 2017, Trump and Chief of Staff John Kelly lashed out at her publicly, prompting a flood of threats so violent that the congresswoman did not feel safe showing up to a vote in Washington, D.C.

What The Daily Beast’s news about Darryl Varnum illustrates is that, given the lax state of gun laws in the U.S., Wilson’s hesitance back in 2017 was entirely reasonable. After all, Varnum called Wilson on June 28 from his home, scarcely a 90-minute drive from the capital. He called her from a home where he may still have firearm access despite a police encounter four years prior in which he was said to possess “numerous” guns but only one registered.

If Varnum is convicted for threatening Wilson, he will finally have a criminal record that could bar him from gun ownership. Amazingly, though, even that might not put firearms out of his reach: Even in the states with the strictest laws around felon gun possession, “thousands” manage to acquire them each year due to legal loopholes and insufficient procedures.

It’s enough to make one wonder: How many women does a man have to endanger before the state deprives him of the means to kill them?

This piece originally referred to the gun Darryl Varnum had in his garage in 2015 as loaded. We do not have confirmation for this detail and have updated the piece accordingly.