Arming Women to Fight Their Abusers Will Only Lead to More Women Getting Hurt


At Wednesday night’s CNN town hall on gun violence, National Rifle Association spokesperson and understudy for the governess in The Sound of Music Dana Loesch made this claim:

Other NRA wingnuts have latched onto this line, arguing that having unfettered access to guns is good feminist praxis:

What these arguments neglect to mention is that when women—and particularly women of color—actually do try to defend themselves against their abusers, they are frequently the ones who end up getting punished.

First, some facts: Women are three and a half times more likely to be killed by a romantic partner than men are. Women are more than twice as likely to be killed by their husband or an intimate acquaintance than by a stranger. And, according to a Johns Hopkins School of Public Health study, “women living in homes with 1 or more guns were more than 3 times more likely to be killed in their homes.”

You also can’t look at the problem of domestic violence without acknowledging the even worse problem of domestic violence within the law enforcement community. Studies have found that police officers’ partners and families experience domestic violence at a much higher rate than other families. And women who suffer abuse at the hands of police officers are often afraid to go to the police with their experience, fearing retaliation or simple inaction.

Sadly, their fears are often justified. A 2013 New York Times report found that many police departments punished officers more harshly for testing positive for marijuana than for battering a spouse:

The cases reported to the state are the most serious ones — usually resulting in arrests. Even so, nearly 30 percent of the officers accused of domestic violence were still working in the same agency a year later, compared with 1 percent of those who failed drug tests and 7 percent of those accused of theft. Among major offenses tracked by the state, only driving under the influence was less likely to lead to a job loss.

Reading these statistics, it starts to become clear which side of domestic abuse cases our criminal justice system tends to fall on. Not just police departments, but our courts and our prisons are set up in such a way that discredits victims and empowers abusers. Urging women to arm themselves against their abusers will likely only lead to hurting more women—black women in particular.

Consider the case of Bresha Meadows. In 2016, the 14-year-old girl fatally shot her father—a man who she, her mother, and her siblings all described as abusive. Rather than being praised for her bravery in defending her mother and siblings, Meadows was arrested and charged with aggravated murder. Prosecutors originally considered trying Meadows as an adult, which would have carried a potential sentence of 20 years to life in prison. Meadows ultimately spent 10 months in a juvenile detention center in Ohio, and was released earlier this month.

Consider the case of Marissa Alexander. In 2010, the Florida mother of three fired a “warning shot” toward her abusive ex-husband to prevent him from assaulting her. Despite the fact that she was a licensed gun owner and no one was harmed by her shot, Alexander was arrested and charged with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Alexander tried to argue self-defense, citing Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, but was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. (George Zimmerman was acquitted, thanks in part to the same law, for fatally shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.) Alexander ended up serving nearly three years in prison before entering into a plea bargain that included two additional years of house arrest.

The stories of black women trying to defend themselves and their children from their abusers, and being punished for it, go on and on. If the NRA truly wants to help female gun owners protect themselves, as Loesch asserts, then why hasn’t Wayne LaPierre put his crack team of lawyers and lobbyists to work advocating for these women? (This is a rhetorical question. We already know the answer.)

“Having a gun isn’t going to prevent sexual or domestic violence. In fact, using a gun to defend against violence and abuse can lead to further violence by the criminal justice system,” Victoria Law, an author and prison reform advocate, said in an email. “Across the country, women and girls languish behind bars, sometimes for decades, because they defended themselves against sexual and family violence.”

When women—particularly women of color—act in self-defense, the criminal justice system often treats their action as a tacit admission of guilt. As Law wrote in 2015:

When domestic violence is discussed, the “perfect victim” is usually portrayed as middle-class and white; she is also almost always submissive, loving and, most important, nonviolent. So when she defends herself (or her children), a woman defies ingrained expectations of what a “perfect victim” should be and, for police, prosecutors, judges and juries, relinquishes any consideration of the circumstances of her action. In the case of a woman of color, who is already less likely to be deemed worthy of legal protection, the situation becomes even more tangled: by defending herself, she negates any claim she may have had to being the victim and gets framed as the aggressor.

When women of color defend themselves against their abusers, they end up being the ones punished for it. Contrary to what Loesch argues, adding more guns to the equation won’t make anyone safer, especially not women who face sexual violence, and especially not women of color. Telling women they need to buy a gun to ensure their safety—rather than, say, focusing on disarming their abusers—is rape culture at work.

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