October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, when advocates and survivors push issues facing abuse victims into the forefront of national conversation. Every minute in the United States, 20 people experience violence at the hands of an intimate partner. More than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will be the victim of intimate partner violence in their lifetime.
While these statistics are troubling enough, another factor of American culture makes volatile home situations even more dangerous: one in three American adults own a firearm. The chance of a woman in an abusive household being killed by her partner quintuples when a gun is in the home.
In 2013, nearly 500 women were fatally shot by a husband or partner. There are a million women in the United States who have survived a shooting by their intimate partner.
But a gun does not have to be fired for an abuser to use it for purposes of physical control. An additional 4.5 million women have been intimidated or coerced with a gun by an intimate partner. This coercive control is effective for the abuser because it enables ongoing control of the victim, and often doesn’t get reported to law enforcement.
A survey of women in 67 domestic violence shelters in California found that of the women whose abusers had access to a firearm, two-thirds of them had used the weapon to threaten and intimidate the victim. A Harvard study found that incidences of hostile displays of firearms for coercive control were more common in America than the use of guns for self-defense.
A report by Trace states, “Every credible scientific study of women and guns in the last two decades strongly indicates that a firearm in a woman’s home is far more likely to be used against her or her family than to defend against an outside attacker.”
In 1996, Congress passed a law, often referred to as the Lautenberg Amendment, which bars individuals convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from owning firearms. The Feminist Majority Foundation vigorously lobbied for the passing of this law, as it is exceptionally difficult to convict an abuser of felony domestic violence unless the victim is physically assaulted to the point of near death.
This summer, the Supreme Court upheld this protection for victims, whether their abuser “intended” to cause physical harm or not, in the case of Voisine v United States. This law is crucial to the protection of victims considering that domestic violence abusers have a high rate of recidivism and the violence is likely to escalate over time.
While the gun lobby likes to promote firearms as a means of protection, more often it is a tool used to intimidate, harm and murder women. Domestic violence victims cannot be left out of the national debate surrounding gun control.