Story by: BOBBI-JEANNE MISICK
Maeve Wallace, PhD, studies maternal mortality. Specifically, she studies the violent deaths of pregnant and postpartum women. She’s known for years that guns are involved in most cases of maternal mortality. But Wallace has never been able to recommend gun-restricting policies in her federally funded research papers or request federal funding for gun violence research — until now.
After a 24-year-long ban, the federal government made funds available to study gun-violence and gun-violence prevention through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“I think it’s sort of shocking to believe that it was banned for so long,” Wallace said. “If we were to really think about the magnitude of loss of life among pregnant and postpartum women in this country, we want to include homicide and suicide to really capture the magnitude of this problem.”
Wallace is a reproductive epidemiologist and assistant professor at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, and earlier this year Wallace and other researchers from Tulane and Louisiana State University published a study that showed that homicide is a leading cause of maternal deaths in Louisiana. In fact, at just under 13 deaths per 100,000 live births, more pregnant and postpartum women in Louisiana die of homicide than any other single pregnancy or childbirth-related cause.
“And we know that most of those involve firearms — estimates [are] probably anywhere from 60 to 75 percent of those deaths are by firearm,” Wallace said. “… Policies that restrict access to guns seem like one really promising approach to reducing violent maternal death. [And] hopefully, it would stem beyond just pregnant and postpartum women to reduce homicide of intimate partners.”
Domestic violence advocates say once a gun is in the picture, the possibility of death at the hands of an intimate partner greatly increases. Eva Lessenger, program director at the New Orleans Family Justice Center said that between 35 and 45 percent of clients the center sees claimed their abuser had a firearm and that it was used as part of the abuse.
“Thankfully only a very small percentage of our clients end up being killed, but of those who are killed, the vast majority are killed through homicide by guns,” Lessenger said.
The decades-long gap in federal funding is due to the 1996 Dickey Amendment. Backed by the National Rifle Association, the amendment restricted the CDC from using federal funds “made available for injury prevention and control … to advocate or promote gun control.”
While the legislation did not outright prohibit gun-violence research, it effectively halted all federally funded research into gun violence and gun violence prevention by slashing $2.6 million of the CDC’s budget — the amount of money used to study gun-violence the previous year.
In 2012, language similar to that in the Dickey Amendment was added to the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which funded the NIH.
The ban has kept Wallace and her peers from explicitly mentioning guns in their grant proposals to study violence and from recommending gun-related policy changes.
“The implications section should be able to [recommend] a policy that would limit access to firearms,” Wallace said. “It just takes a delicate framing to be able to say something like that.”
Wallace remembered one of her first papers on maternal homicides with a CDC co-author.
“I think we just stated plainly, ‘X percent involved firearms.’ That’s it. Nothing in the implications section. Nothing beyond that,” she said.
The paper also had to note that it did not represent the views of the CDC, she said. She also described similar “censorship” in papers co-authored by the Louisiana Department of Health.
Wallace’s next paper could look much different.
In March 2018, Congress passed a spending bill that allows the CDC and NIH to once again conduct “research on the causes of gun violence.” The two government agencies were given $25 million to split. And in September 2020, the first round of awards was announced.
Wallace and Dovile Vilda, PhD, a research assistant professor at Tulane’s School of Public Health, are one of nine teams that the NIH awarded a total of roughly $8.5 million to study gun violence.
The NIH gave grants to researchers who already had larger federal grants to study related topics. The professors received $146,153 for one year of study to supplement Wallance’s larger grant on the “Impact of State-Level Policies on Maternal Mortality.”
They will be studying Louisiana’s domestic violence gun policies — passed in 2014 and updated since then — that were part of a sweeping package of laws passed to protect victims of domestic abuse.
“How Could The System Have Failed Them”
Charmaine Caccioppi, executive vice president of United Way for Southeast Louisiana, is one of the women who has worked since 2014 on increasing protections for victims and survivors of domestic abuse. She was “energized” to change the laws after a domestic-violence-related shooting spree that spanned two parishes and left four people dead — including her friend — and injured three others on Dec. 26, 2013.
Caccioppi was close with Lafourche Parish council member Phillip Gouaux and his wife, Susan. Better known to the community as Pixie, Susan Gouaux was a fundraiser and teacher’s aid at Holy Savior Catholic School in Lockport. She ran the local fair and helped start a local women’s club, Lion’s Club, and the Bayou Lafourche Folklife and Heritage Museum.
“They were a family that was just loved and respected and admired,” Caccioppi said.
In 2013, one of the Gouaux’s daughters, Jeanne, was embroiled in a heated custody battle with her ex-husband, Benjamin Freeman, over their four children.
“I don’t trust him and I’m terrified,” Jeanne had said about Freeman during divorce proceedings years before.
Phillip Gouaux recalled a number of violent outbursts from Freeman, including one when he ripped a sink off the wall at Ochsner St. Ann Hospital, where he worked as a nurse, because Jeanne planned to have dinner with her sister, Andrea. Gouaux also said he saw Freeman hit his eldest child across the face with the back of his hand.
In January 2013, Freeman bought a shotgun and kept it hidden in his house. That year, Jeanne told Lafourche Parish deputies she was afraid of Freeman. She and her father pressed charges against him for harassment after he showed up at their home in a rage and rifled through Gouaux’s truck, possibly looking for Gauaux’s pistol. A second protective order was filed, the second in a year, but Freeman kept his rifle.
On Oct. 23, 2013, Freeman pleaded guilty to two counts of harassment. He kept his rifle.
Two months later, on Dec. 26, Freeman strangled and drowned his new wife, Denise Taylor Freeman. He then drove the Gouaux’s Lockport home, where Philip, Pixie and Andrea were watching his children. Freeman shot through the Gouauxs’ front door with his rifle. A bullet hit Phillip in the neck. Pixie ran toward Freeman to fight for the gun, but Freeman shot and killed her. He chased Andrea, his eldest son holding onto his arm begging him not to shoot his aunt. Gouaux said Freeman shook his son free and told him to cover his eyes, and shot Andrea in the back.
After leaving the Gouaux’s house, Freeman traveled from Lafourche Parish back to Terrebonne Parish to Raceland, where then-CEO of Ochsner St. Anne Hospital Milton Bourgeois lived. He shot and killed his former employer and injured his wife, Ann.
Freeman later shot himself in the head. He was found inside a vehicle along a highway in Raceland.
Andrea and Philip Gouax survived. Andrea lost the use of her legs and suffers from painful nerve damage. Phillip was in a coma for three weeks, has lost part of his vision, and lives with kidney disease.
“How could something as horrific as what happened in my community — my friend losing her life at the hands of her son-in-law who had a history of domestic violence — happen?” Caccioppi asked. “How could this system have failed them?”
Caccioppi was determined to make sure the system did not continue to fail victims of domestic abuse. She soon connected with New Orleans lawyer Kim Sport, who had also been personally affected by domestic violence when her sister revealed that she had been abused. Sport was outraged to learn that immediate divorce could be granted in cases of infidelity but not in cases of abuse.
“We ended up burying ourselves in this work,” Caccioppi said. “It was an obsession.”
Through the United Way of Southeast Louisiana, Caccioppi and Sport formed the United Against Domestic Violence Coalition, which partnered with advocates for victims and survivors of domestic abuse from the New Orleans Family Justice Center and the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
They successfully encouraged then-state legislator Helena Moreno to introduce a package of bills that would allow married victims of abuse to immediately divorce their abusive partners and to receive spousal support after, that made a second battery charge a felony, and that kept guns out of the hands of individuals convicted of domestic abuse.
In September 2014, the entire package of bills passed, and the law addressing gun possession was named after Pixie.
The Susan “Pixie” Gouaux Act made it illegal for anyone who was subject to a protective order to possess a firearm for the duration of the protective order. It also keeps anyone convicted of domestic abuse battery — misdemeanor or felony — from possessing a firearm for 10 years after the completion of their sentences, probation, parole or the suspension of sentences.
Since 2014, strangulation and certain types of stalking have been on the list of crimes that would restrict gun possession in Louisiana. In 2018 the state added a requirement for a judge to order anyone convicted of domestic abuse battery to hand over any firearms in their possession and to order the suspension of a concealed handgun permit for those individuals during the 10 years that they are banned from possessing a gun.
Tulane Study Will Look At How Domestic Violence Gun Laws Are Working In Louisiana
Wallace and Vilda will study maternal homicides in Louisiana both before and after the state adopted the Susan “Pixie” Gouaux Act.
“So do states that enact these policies see greater reductions in maternal homicide than states that do not enact these policies?” Wallace asked. “We hypothesize that these policies are going to be effective.”
In 2014 Louisiana had the second-highest rate of women killed by men in the U.S., according to the Violence Policy Center’s latest “When Men Murder Women” report. Since then the state has remained among the five states with the highest rates of women killed by men. In 2019 it was ranked second again, but in 2020 it was ranked fifth. (In all cases, the ranking is based on data from two years prior to the year that the report is published.)
“It’s not anything to celebrate yet, but I think there’s some curiosity on the part of the advocates as to whether that is due to the legislation,” Lessinger said.
With the newly released funds from NIH, Wallace and Vilda’s study may give advocates a clearer understanding of whether or not the laws are protecting victims of domestic violence.
Wallace suspects that while she and Vilda are focused on homicides in pregnant and postpartum women, their findings can be applied more broadly to domestic violence homicides, given that the study she published earlier this year showed pregnant and postpartum women are at a higher risk of homicide than non-pregnant and postpartum women of similar ages.
“Physical abuse during pregnancy of some kind puts you at a much higher risk for lethality,” Lessinger said. “If someone is capable of harming you during your pregnancy or when you have an infant in your arms, that person, we know anecdotally, is capable of even more extreme violence.”
A Space for Gun Policy Recommendations
For the first time, Wallace will be able to make firearm policy recommendations.
For service providers like Lessinger, the findings will inform where they place their efforts.
“It will help us figure out where to put our energy once we have some good data to back up the effectiveness of these laws,” Lessinger said. “Should we continue to push for stronger enforcement of the laws because that seems to be the best way forward? Or should we push to invest in other types of strategy around gun prevention violence separately?”
As the anniversary of Benjamin Freeman’s violent spree in Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes drew near, Gouaux said he is just glad that his former son-in-law didn’t show up on Christmas day, when all of his children and grandchildren would have been at his home. He said he supports Wallace’s research. Caccioppi called the news about the study an early Christmas present. She said the event that propelled her to advocate for stronger domestic-violence gun laws in Louisiana continues to deeply affect her and the communities of Houma, Lockport and Raceland areas.
“I don’t think any of us feel like, when the holidays come and Christmas is passed, … we will ever forget that day marks the remembrance of a very solemn and just horrific domestic violence homicide. None of us will ever forget,” Caccioppi said. “I do believe that something [that] horrific has been an instrument for good, because that tragic circumstance has compelled us to educate, inform and inspire people that they all have a role to play in ending domestic violence and gun violence in our community.”