By Emily Imhoff, Policy and Grassroots Outreach Fellow
When I moved to Washington D.C. from Ohio, close family members and friends became increasingly concerned about my safety. Ignorant of DC gun laws, a family for whom I regularly dog sit suggested I obtain my concealed carry license. One cousin joked over voicemail, “congrats on your big move! Dangerous city! I want to buy you a gun as a graduation gift.” Ohio is a concealed carry state, meaning you are free to carry a concealed handgun within Ohio after you submit an application and check off a number of requirements (including passing a background check, reading through the Attorney General’s pamphlet, and submitting to have your fingerprints scanned), with the exception of off-limits locations listed on the Ohio Attorney General’s website. Although guns typically make me feel uneasy, I am all too used to hearing about the potential benefits of owning a handgun…even my family owns a fully stocked gun cabinet.
But as well-intentioned wishes for my safety multiplied with each congratulatory card and phone call, I grew irritated by the fact that this exciting leap into post-undergraduate adulthood would be measured –if not overshadowed– by my preparedness for self-defense and the ability to protect myself. Their cautious tidbits of advice weren’t necessarily new, but they were different.
As a young woman, I have been told countless times to modify my behavior in an effort to ward off potential sexual predators: don’t wear revealing clothing, never go anywhere alone, never set down my drink, carry pepper spray, etc. As a feminist, I have been devoted to advocating for the safety of women while simultaneously dispelling the myth that it is a woman’s responsibility to end violence against herself.
Often used to dismiss acts of sexual or physical violence, victim blaming occurs when the victim of a crime is made fully or partially responsible for whatever harm befell her. Questions like, what was she wearing? Why was she alone in that neighborhood? Why didn’t she just leave him? As a survivor, I, too, have been condemned for my assault. “Are you sure?” they asked, “I mean, you two have hooked up before.”
I remember a conversation I had with my father some years back about rising sexual assault and gender-based violence at universities across the United States. As news coverage of campus sexual violence increased, naturally so did my father’s concern for my safety, as I often worked late on campus and walked alone to the parking garage. Having been involved with survivor advocacy and consent education on my own campus, I shared with my father the likelihood that I would be –that I had been– a victim of sexual violence, despite common misconceptions of who perpetrators are and where they lurk. One out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape (National Institute of Justice & Center for Disease Control and Prevention.) Approximately 4/5 (82%) of rapes were committed by someone known to the victim. Of those, 47% of rapists are a friend or acquaintance, 25% are an intimate, and 5% are a relative (U.S. Department of Justice.)
The statistics haunted us both; I was more likely to be the victim of sexual violence at the hands of my partner, brother, or father than I was a stranger in the parking garage. The statistics for physical violence and stalking are just as disturbing: One in four women (22.3%) have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner and one in six women (15.2%) have been stalked during their lifetime (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence).
Knowing this , I assumed my loved ones were (1) unaware of the correlation between abuser/victim relationship and violence or (2) believed that acquiring a gun would change those statistics. However, when you add firearms to the mix, the data becomes even more gruesome.
Let’s consider the sheer number of women who are victims of fatal intimate partner abuse:
- Nearly 1000 women are killed by an intimate partner each year –one third of all female murder victims (Violence Policy Center.)
- Two-thirds of the women murdered by intimate partners were killed with gun (Bridges, et al.)
- Having a gun in the home increases the risk of homicide 20 times when there is a history of domestic violence (John Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.)
- Women in the US are 11 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than in other developed nations (Mayors Against Illegal Guns.)
Yikes. And yet my loved ones, gun-slinging devotees, and Republican lawmakers continue to argue that concealed carry weapons may actually help the high rates of intimate partner violence. Some sexual violence prevention advocates have pointed out that, considering most sexual assaults occur between people who know each other, what are the chances a victim would be willing to shoot their perpetrator if the perpetrator was their friend? Their relative? The same logic can be applied to victims of more broadly defined domestic violence. The fact is women are more likely to be shot and killed by an abusive partner than the other way around (Center for American Progress.)
According to an article published by Think Progress, abusers who have access to a gun are over seven times more likely to kill their partners. In fact, the presence of a gun in domestic violence situations –regardless of who technically owns the gun– increases the risk of homicide by 500 percent (American Journal of Public Health.) And get this: current law does not prohibit people convicted of domestic violence against a current or former dating partner, people convicted of stalking, or people under a temporary restraining order from possessing a firearm, even though roughly 50% of women killed by an intimate partner were killed by a dating partner and roughly 75% of women killed by an intimate partner were stalked (MacFarlane, et al.) That means if I am stalked by my boyfriend and obtain a restraining order, even if he’s convicted, he still has the ability to purchase a firearm. Hm.
Furthermore, many people who are legally prohibited from owning guns are still able to purchase them. Local records within states often do not contain sufficient detail to flag offenders and offenders can purchase firearms at gun shows or from private sellers, and can therefore bypass background checks (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.)
So what would my gun enthusiast community members and gun-pushers say to all of this? There is the National Rifle Association’s award-winning crime prevention program with a female slant. The NRA’s Refuse To Be A Victim seminar, in all its paradoxical glory, teaches women the tips and techniques necessary to be alerted to dangerous situations and, in their own words, avoid becoming a victim. (We might call this preemptive victim blaming.)
Gun toting men and women advertised along the perimeter, Refuse To Be A Victim’s homepage promises to help each attendee build a personal safety strategy. In place of firearm training, the seminar focuses on teaching proactive courses of action that, if successful, helps women avoid situations where self-defense is necessary and thus makes it difficult to be preyed upon. “We can all pinpoint times where we’ve made ourselves an easy target,” the site states under its Principles of Crime Prevention sub-page, “don’t be an easy target.” the NRA’s Refuse To Be A Victim seminar claims that many attacks can be prevented altogether, but only when you make the decision to refuse to be a victim.
The underlying theme echoes that of your typical victim blamers: It is a woman’s responsibility to stop violence from happening to her. What my family and friends, the NRA, and an army of victim-shaming internet trolls all fail to acknowledge is the number of women who die each year in the hands of family and friends, presumably by people they loved and trusted. It is irresponsible to suggest that a woman is a fault for her death because she was unaware of her surroundings, or failed to follow a gut feeling, or didn’t have right personal safety strategy. According to a 2014 report produced by the Center for American Progress, between 2001 and 2014, 6,410 women were murdered by an intimate partner using a gun. For perspective, that is more than the total number of U.S. troops killed in action during the entirety of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. What would we really say to those women? To their families? If only she had refused to be a victim?
As a society, we tend to oversimplify the nature of intimate partner abuse. Similarly, we like to think we can easily spot people who are “bad” abusers and “good” partners. When a person doesn’t fit our picture of what an abuser looks like, these ideas make excusing intimate partner easy and effectively preventing and eradicating partner violence difficult. So let’s at least get one thing straight: telling women they should behave a certain way to avoid being a victim is utterly ridiculous; it is a lie, it is offensive. It creates a false sense of security, guilts women when they do become victims of violence, and it excuses the behavior and actions of abusers.
I would much rather the NRA champion legislation that makes it impossible for abusers to legally obtain guns, instead of pushing legislation that inadvertently protects perpetrators (have you heard of the PLCAA?) I would much rather support congressmen and women who pledge to close loopholes that currently allow convicted abusers access to weapons. I would rather support organizations, coalitions, and campaigns that work to protect victims and put an end to our white supremacist, heteronormative, patriarchal society that currently upholds and protects a culture of abuse. I would much rather do any number of things than buy a gun.
****It is worth noting that information about gun violence and trans* women, gender non-binary, and gender-nonconforming individuals is not included in the aforementioned data, but that 8 to 15 percent of trans* individuals are killed by intimate partners each year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The lack of accurate and reliable research makes it impossible to know widespread violence against trans*, non-binary, and non-conforming individuals, including intimate partner violence and death by firearm.****