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The NRA’s cynical campaign on domestic violence

In a National Rifle Association video targeted to women, spokeswoman Dana Loesch declares that “real empowerment” for women occurs only when they are armed and ready to shoot and kill abusive partners. This position, which is pure sophistry, illuminates just how much the NRA does not know, or care to know, about the deadly reality of women, firearms, and violent husbands or boyfriends.

Telling a woman to “just get a gun” is as simplistic and victim-blaming as telling her to “just leave.” And this dangerous mentality has gained currency in laws in at least two states. New laws have recently gone into effect in Tennessee and Indiana that relax regulations on gun ownership for people who have a protective order in effect against an abuser. 

The truth is, by the time a domestic violence victim reaches the point where she has to turn to law enforcement and/or the courts for protection, the abuser has used a wide array of tactics—everything from a dozen red roses to holding a gun to her head—to gain and maintain control over her. It is a process that includes a period of courtship, of falling in love, often of exchanging vows. It includes a history that is a combination of light and dark, of highs and lows. Often, it includes having children together.

After the relationship becomes one of constant abuse, terror, coercion, and violence, a domestic violence victim is forced to realize that the person she believes she still loves, and who may be he father of her children, is now the most dangerous person in her life. What the NRA does not even try to comprehend is context, and in abusive relationships, context matters. They expect the victim to simply get a gun and be prepared at any moment (day or night) to turn and shoot.

According to the NRA, abusers should not be restricted from gun ownership until they’ve been found guilty of a felony assault. What a difference it would make if abusers actually were charged at the felony level. If the NRA really understood the realities of domestic violence, they would see just how bad misdemeanor assaults on women are across the country (for example, in North Carolina, we have a charge called misdemeanor assault with a deadly weapon), and how commonly abusers are charged only with misdemeanor-level crimes. Then would they advocate for gun restrictions for abusers found guilty of misdemeanor assault? Hundreds of lives would be saved, and the intergenerational cycle of violence could be significantly reduced.

It’s also critically important to know that many domestic violence homicides or homicide/suicides happen after the victim has obtained an order of protection, with no criminal charges filed. Many think the civil process is not worthy of much attention from the criminal justice community, but reading through the orders of protection that murdered abused women obtained shows us how much insight they have into the danger they were facing. They often predict their own murders, and yet the courts shrug their collective shoulders. Then the victim/s wind up dead. Over half of these preventable homicides are committed with firearms.

In Private Violence, a documentary that premiered on HBO in October 2014, the inadequacies of the criminal justice response for domestic violence victims are laid bare. (I appear in the film as a domestic violence victim advocate.) Audiences are shocked to see just how badly Deanna Walters, the survivor featured in the film, was beaten, and they are outraged when they hear that the local prosecutor was prepared to file one count of misdemeanor assault on a female against Deanna’s estranged husband, Robbie. 

In many ways, Deanna was lucky. The minute she was kidnapped by Robbie and taken across state lines, the crime became a federal one. Deanna’s husband was tried in federal court and sentenced to 21 years for kidnapping, beating, and terrorizing her. If her case had been tried in North Carolina courts, he would have received, at most, 150 days in the county jail. This is the reality of domestic violence in the United States of America.

In America, every day, at least three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends. Many of these murders are execution-style, and often, children or other family members are killed as well.

Women leave abusive men because they want the violence to end. They don’t want to be stalked, terrorized, and killed, and they don’t want to have to kill their abuser to make the violence stop. In Indiana and Tennessee, their legislative solution is to give domestic violence victims immediate access to firearms without having to get a license, rather than using clear and appropriate sanctions against the abuser, including restricting him from being able to carry a firearm. It boggles the mind, and it also illuminates the disconnect between the fantasy and the reality of guns and domestic violence.

Abused women are not murdered in fair gunfights. Abusers stalk them like prey. Domestic violence homicides are revenge homicides. So often, the killer is her estranged husband or boyfriend. She has done what people have told her to do—she has left. Telling her to “just leave” or “just get a gun” speaks volumes about how little most people know about this private, interpersonal terrorism.

When women do what the NRA recommends they do to be “empowered,” they usually get sent to prison for a long time. Across the country, hundreds of women are sitting in state prisons right now for protecting themselves and/or their children. They are not a danger to society. They were dismissed by the criminal justice system, right up until they were forced to take matters into their own hands. What does it say about us if we think the only option a woman has to live safely in her home is to kill her abuser? It says that we are failing one out of every three women.

Three years have come and gone since Private Violence was released. In those three years, between 3,600 and 4,800 women have been murdered by their partners, many of them with firearms. Expecting women to arm themselves and be prepared to shoot and kill the men they have loved (and may, on some level, still love) only guarantees that more women (and children) will wind up dead.

Rather than working to arm abused women, the NRA should be working to make sure that abusive, controlling, violent men never get their hands on firearms. That’s what would save lives and make a true and lasting difference.

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