The day before Rolanda Hernandez Cortinas planned to file a protective order against her husband, he’d held her hostage for several hours, saying he had a gun and was willing to use it if she dared leave him.

She had previously filed more than three dozen police reports over his physical violence, but nothing ever happened.

So the day after the hostage incident in 2003, Cortinas and her mother, Rachel Cavazos, readied to go to court, where they hoped to procure an order that would force the husband to stay away.

As they were leaving, he stormed into the apartment and dragged the 24-year-old Cortinas outside, where he gunned her down before killing himself. Her two small children witnessed the murder.

Cavazos, 61, had endured domestic violence in her own marriage, and knew the unspeakable terror of having an intimate partner hold a gun to your head and threaten to pull the trigger.

When she heard the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had recently overturned a federal ban that kept domestic abusers under protective orders from having access to firearms, she couldn’t quite believe it.

“I think Texas doesn’t care much about women,” Cavazos said. “It’s just another checkmark in the column of, ‘What can we do to make life more difficult and dangerous for them?”

Rachel Cavazos, a survivor of domestic violence, cherishes a painting her nephew made of Cavazos and her daughter, Rolanda, who was killed in a murder-suicide 20 years ago.
Rachel Cavazos, a survivor of domestic violence, looks at a painting her nephew made of her and her daughter, Rolanda, who was killed in a murder-suicide 20 years ago. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Last month, the 5th Circuit, based in New Orleans, ruled that the federal gun ban for domestic abusers violates the Second Amendment rights of those under orders of protection. The court represents Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi and comprises one of the most conservative appeals courts in the country.

While the ruling applies to only three states, it stands to have national reverberations.

Not surprisingly, advocates for domestic abuse survivors are outraged, saying the ruling puts the rights of perpetrators over the safety of victims.

“This is just infuriating,” said Patricia Castillo, head of the local P.E.A.C.E. Initiative, a nonprofit that educates the community about domestic violence. “We’ve spent a lifetime trying to keep victims of this type of violence safe, and now three people get to make this decision for three states. It’s unbelievable.” 

People who are placed under protective orders “have already been found by a judge to be willing and able to do harm, and so allowing them to have access to weapons is deadly,” Castillo said. “Make no mistake, women will die from this decision — more so than they already are.”

The February ruling involved an Arlington man who admitted having guns after he was issued a protective order for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend in 2020. Police picked him up after he was involved in five separate shootings in 2020 and 2021.

His lawyers argued before the 5th Circuit that depriving him of his guns violated his constitutional rights. The court agreed and gave him back his firearms.

The U.S. Supreme Court set the table for the ruling last summer when it issued a controversial new standard that says any gun restriction must be “consistent with this nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.” 

In other words, judges should no longer consider things like public safety or the lives of victims when it comes to gun-restriction decisions. Instead, they need to hearken back to what was considered fair and reasonable near the time of this nation’s founding — you know, that incredibly enlightened time of 1787.

With this twisted reasoning, the 5th Circuit decided that statutes banning abusers under orders of protection from owning guns flies in the face of this nation’s glorious tradition of the right to bear arms.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland opposed the ruling and said his office plans to appeal.

It’s a good thing, because if this ruling is allowed to stand, it will be tantamount to signing the death certificates of untold numbers of women (and, yes, most of those killed in these situations are females attacked by male partners.)

Studies show that abusers with access to guns are five times more likely to eventually kill their intimate partners. 

In 2021 alone, 127 women in Texas were murdered by their male intimate partners with firearms, according to the Texas Council on Family Violence, or TCFV. Across the country, an average of 70 women each month are killed by their partners with guns. 

The TCFV, a coalition of domestic violence service providers, issued a statement after the ruling, noting that, over the past decade, the number of women murdered by an intimate partner with a firearm in Texas has nearly doubled.

“[The ruling] does not change the research,” the statement read. “It does not remove the life-threatening risk of a perpetrator with a gun; it will only embolden them. It does not reduce the tremendous grief of a slain victim’s family; it will only heighten it.”

The 5th Circuit’s ruling — and the Supreme Court’s undergirding reasoning — ignores one blindingly obvious fact: There were no rules or pattern of statutes against domestic abusers having guns in this country’s early days because family abuse wasn’t against the law.

For most of U.S. history, it was considered perfectly fine for a husband to beat his wife. It was viewed as a private affair, a family matter. In fact, wife-beating wasn’t declared a crime in all 50 states until 1920.

“This decision is rooted in a time in our country when men could beat and even kill their wives without consequence,” Castillo said. “Nobody even blinked, because she was his property.”

Fortunately, our culture (for the most part) has progressed beyond that horrendous mindset. It’s too bad that the three judges of the 5th Circuit apparently possess minds — and morals — that are mired in a less humane era.

Castillo sees the ruling as just the most recent foray in conservative efforts to chip away at the rights and protections of women and children, from the overturning of Roe v. Wade to the flurry of legislative attacks on transgender youth across the nation.

Debra Guevara, who was shot three times by her husband in 2007, was likewise dumbstruck when she heard the news of the ruling.

On the day of the shooting, Guevara said her husband, who was a pathologically jealous man, became enraged when he thought she had been flirting with a man at a high school board meeting.

Like with Cavazos’s daughter, the shooting occurred after Guevara told her husband she was leaving him — the riskiest time in a victim’s life. Hit three times by bullets, Guevara survived, but spent months re-learning how to walk.

Debra Guevara, survivor of domestic violence, at her house.
Debra Guevara, a survivor of domestic violence, says she endured years of abuse during her marriage. Credit: Brenda Bazán / San Antonio Report

Her spouse was arrested, stood trial and was convicted. She recalls that all through the pre-trial and trial time period, the system seemed to focus more on his rights than hers. When he became ill in prison, a doctor advocated releasing him before he’d served even half of his 55-year sentence. 

The release wasn’t granted, and he died in prison in 2022.

Guevara said the 5th Circuit’s decision essentially gives perpetrators “permission to go ahead and kill their significant others.

“It’s hard enough to get a protective order, and now they get to keep their guns?” she said. “This makes women sitting ducks.”

You may argue: If someone is going to violate a protective order, they’re not going to abide by gun restrictions either, so what’s the point of a gun ban? Well, then what’s the point of having any laws at all? Why have speed limits, if some drivers will inevitably exceed them? Why outlaw murder, if some folks are going to kill?

The point is: Laws matter. And if the safety of victims doesn’t move you, perhaps self-preservation will: Studies show that nearly 70% of gunmen who perpetrate mass shootings have a history of domestic violence. 

This new ruling puts us all in the broader crosshairs of domestic abuse.

The 5th Circuit is also the same court that struck down the federal ban on bump stocks — devices that enable semi-automatic rifles to fire bullets more rapidly — which was imposed after the mass shooting in Las Vegas that left 58 people dead. 

The court ruled in January that only Congress has the authority to ban devices such as bump stocks, which remain illegal in most of the country but not in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Bump stocks are a favorite of mass shooters.

This is what happens when leaders value the Constitution — a remarkable document that nonetheless was crafted in a less civilized time — over the value of human life in the present century.

The stakes are high. 

In the first 10 weeks of this year, there have been more than 100 mass shootings, and guns claimed the lives of more than 8,000 people and injured more than 6,000, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

If both these 5th Court rulings stand, blood will be on these judge’s hands, as well as on the hands of anyone who supports their stances.

This article has been updated to correctly characterize orders in domestic abuse cases as protective orders rather than restraining orders.

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje has worked in Texas newspaper journalism for more than three decades, at the San Antonio Light, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. She holds bachelor’s...