A Lethal Mix: Guns, Sexism, and Domestic Violence

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In a recent column in The Nation about the Oscar Pistorius murder caseJessica Valenti reminds us that one of the gravest threats to women is the patriarchal assumption that they need to be protected by men. Zeroing in on the South African Olympic hero’s claim that he shot his defenseless girlfriend to death because he thought she was a home invader, Valenti underscores a disturbing truth in our own country: that American women in abusive relationships are far more likely to be killed by their partners when there are guns in their homes.

Valenti writes:

When I was a volunteer emergency room advocate for victims of rape and domestic violence, the first question we were trained to ask women who had been abused by their partners was whether or not there was a gun in the home. Because we knew that women whose partners had access to a gun were seven times more likely to be killed. In fact, women who are killed by their partners are more likely to be murdered by a gun than all other means combined.

Unfortunately, fact-based arguments like Valenti’s haven’t deterred the gun industry from peddling the fear-drenched myth that guns make women safer — as this brazen industry ad for Glock pistols makes clear:

In addition to the trend in industry ads like these, over the past few weeks right-wing friends of the gun industry have been using exactly the same argument to pressure Congress to block common-sense reforms to current gun laws. The basic line of reasoning, advanced most recently by NRA-approved “feminist” Gayle Trotter of the Independent Women’s Forum in testimony before Congress, is that the liberation of weapons is tantamount to the liberation of women:

Of course, the main trouble with arguments that say gun control is sexist is the mountain of evidence that says exactly the opposite. As The New York Times argued recently in an excellent editorial, “The idea that guns are essential to home defense and women’s safety is a myth”:

The cost-benefit balance of having a gun in the home is especially negative for women, according to a 2011 review by David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Far from making women safer, a gun in the home is ‘a particularly strong risk factor’ for female homicides and the intimidation of women. In domestic violence situations, the risk of homicide for women increased eightfold when the abuser had access to firearms, according to a study published in The American Journal of Public Health in 2003. Further, there was ‘no clear evidence’ that victims’ access to a gun reduced their risk of being killed. Another 2003 study, by Douglas Wiebe of the University of Pennsylvania, found that females living with a gun in the home were 2.7 times more likely to be murdered than females with no gun at home. Regulating guns, on the other hand, can reduce that risk.

An analysis by Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that in states that required a background check for every handgun sale, women were killed by intimate partners at a much lower rate. Senator Patrick Leahy, the Judiciary Committee chairman, has used this fact to press the case for universal background checks, to make sure that domestic abusers legally prohibited from having guns cannot get them … The idea that guns are essential to home defense and women’s safety is a myth. It should not be allowed to block the new gun controls that the country so obviously needs.

But dislodging this resurgent myth will require more than statistics. As Valenti points out, it will also require overcoming the deep-seated assumption that women need to be protected by men in the first place. Until we dismantle that patriarchal narrative at its root — a narrative that positions women as victims, and men and guns as their protectors — no amount of statistical evidence is likely to stop the gun industry from playing on people’s fears in ways that shield the real perpetrators of violence against women from public view.

As Valenti says:

Despite this tower of evidence [that women are at far greater risk when there are guns in the home], people will continue to insist that these women could have somehow stopped the violence. (Inaccuracies aside, the idea that women have a responsibility to keep someone from killing them rather than an abuser not to commit murder is baffling.) The more we tell ourselves and others these lies, the more cover we give to those would do violence against women. We create a narrative where victims are to blame and abusers heroized. And perhaps worst of all, we create a culture where we fool ourselves into thinking these murders are something that just happens—unforeseeable tragedies rather than preventable violence.The reality of domestic violence murders is stark and scary—but it is still the reality. And no amount of story-telling will stop the killings. Only the truth can do that.