This story contains descriptions of physical and emotional abuse. If you or a loved one is a victim of abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233, or log on to thehotline.org for help, or call 911 if physical abuse is happening or imminent. For more about the warning signs of domestic abuse, visit the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) website at womenslaw.org.
In just one state, in one year — Iowa, 2021 — the murders added up. Different ages, relationships, but the same ending. Margaret Jensen, 54, was shot to death by her husband, who then shot and killed himself. Wilanna Bibbs, 20, had hoped to start a singing career. Her boyfriend of several months was charged with first-degree murder after she was shot and has entered a not-guilty plea. Tanniaah Spates, 43, had an order of protection after a domestic assault charge against the father of her children. But that didn’t stop him from murdering her with a gun, then killing himself.
These deaths were just a few of the 365 domestic violence-related homicides in Iowa from 1995 to 2022 compiled by the Iowa Attorney General’s Office’s Domestic Violence Fatality Chronicle. Among those, 249 were women, 47 men, and 69 bystanders, which included children.
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Spouses, former spouses, dating partners, and cohabitors killed 249 Iowa women. One woman was killed by a hitman hired by her husband. A gun was used in 54% of the deaths.
That’s just one state — but these Iowa deaths were a reflection of a national trend. Here is the stark truth: When men who have committed intimate-partner violence have access to a gun, it increases the risk of a woman being killed by more than 1000%, according to 2020 meta-analysis of 17 studies. One thousand percent.
Domestic violence and guns
The numbers tell a harrowing story:
• According to the FBI’s most recent statistics, 10,153 girlfriends, wives, ex-wives, and common-law wives were murdered by their partners between 2010 and 2020. While the murder weapon isn’t named for those deaths, at least 71% of all homicides nationally were committed with firearms, says research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
• And actually, the number is greater than those stats show, because only 62% of law enforcement agencies submitted data to the FBI — and ex-girlfriends and stalking victims aren’t included.
• Over half of all homicides of non-Hispanic Black and American Indian/Alaska Native women (who experience the highest overall rates of homicide) were related to intimate partner violence, according to a CDC data analysis. Again, the murder weapons aren’t named, but firearms were used in almost 54% of female homicides overall.
And when you consider the connection between domestic violence and mass shootings (defined as four or more people killed by gunfire), it’s clear that the impact goes beyond the home, too. A 2021 study in the journal Injury Epidemiology found that in around 68% of mass shootings, the perpetrator either shot or killed at least one partner or family member. Or the perpetrator had a history of domestic violence, either against an intimate partner, family members, or someone they cohabitated or shared a child with.
The recent, tragic Uvalde school shooting — which allegedly began when the shooter’s grandmother was shot in the face — led Congress to pass the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act in June. The first major federal gun safety law to pass Congress in over a quarter century, the Act — among various changes it made to federal firearm law—addressed what’s been called the Boyfriend Loophole: It expanded prohibitions against gun ownership by boyfriends who’d been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence charges, not just spouses.
The Act may help protect those at risk of intimate partner gun violence—but some advocates point out that it may not go far enough.
The Boyfriend Loophole
When Woodson Bradley was in her 20s, her boyfriend gradually became more controlling and physically violent. One night during a fight, he dragged her by the hair to the garage and handed her a gun, she says. He held another gun to her head and told her to shoot her beloved border collie, Amos. In her rural neighborhood, no one could hear her screams and pleading.
Bradley considered her options — if she turned the gun on her boyfriend, she had no idea if the gun was loaded. He got closer to her, so loud and close that she could feel his spit and hot breath on her face, his rage ringing in her ears.
“I begged God to forgive me,” Bradley said. She pulled the trigger, shaking. Click. Empty. Her boyfriend slapped her face with a backhanded blow, punching and kicking her, calling her vile words for being willing to kill her dog, she says.
“I ran away from him like an animal, grabbing everything I could,” Bradley says. Later, she discovered the situation is a common abuser’s technique — creating horrific conditions where no matter what you choose, it’s the wrong choice. She fled the state.
Organizations such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) had long asked that dating partners be included in the definition of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” in the federal firearms code. But until the new Act was passed, that code didn’t cover boyfriends or ex-boyfriends. If someone was convicted of this crime against a current or former spouse or cohabitant, or a person with whom they shared a child, the code prohibited them from owning a gun. But if the crime was against their girlfriend or former girlfriend? They could own a gun. And more than a half of women killed by partners were murdered by people they were simply dating — not married to — according to historical data.
Now, the “boyfriend loophole” has been narrowed by the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act: Gun possession is prohibited for five years for current or recent dating partners who have been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor.
“There’s finally an acknowledgment that people who don’t have kids in common, aren’t married or don’t cohabitate are also at risk,” says Gretta Gordy Gardner, general counsel at Ujima Inc: The National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community, who has spent two decades in the field, including as a prosecutor in the Domestic Violence Unit at the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office.
The gun legislation is promising and a great step forward for protecting victims of domestic violence, says Ruth Glenn, CEO and president of NCADV. She’s worked in the domestic violence field for over 27 years and is a survivor of domestic violence. Yet some serious issues went unaddressed, one of which involves protective orders.
The limits of protective order
The federal firearms code also prohibits abusers from possessing firearms if they are subject to permanent (final) protective orders. However, one of these orders is issued only after a hearing at which the abuser has the opportunity to appear, make their case, and present evidence. (It’s easy to imagine why a victim of domestic violence wouldn’t want to put herself through that process.) And “permanent” restraining orders often expire within six months to two years, depending on the state, according to the NCADV.
NCADV’s wish list for the firearms code would include blocking abusers from possessing firearms if they’re under temporary domestic violence protective orders as well, not just permanent ones. In addition, they’d like to see dating partners added to the protective order prohibitor, which is currently only the case in some states. Another reason why this is important: More protective orders are issued annually than misdemeanor domestic violence convictions.
NCADV would also like to see misdemeanor stalking added to the list of disqualifying crimes, because not only can that happen during abusive relationships — it can take place after a relationship ends: An abuser may take a break and then pick up stalking months or years later. “You have to consider the history of the relationship to understand. The stalking may not be continuous, and that’s a tactic some abusers use,” Gardner says. Some states, such as Oregon, have stalking protection orders prohibiting gun ownership, but there’s no equivalent at the federal level.
NCADV hopes to encourage states to adopt effective protocols for firearm surrender and removal in domestic violence cases; as it stands now, surrender protocols aren’t consistent across states. Evidence by the Boston University School of Public Health shows that these protocols work: In states that require abusers who are subject to protective orders to surrender their firearms, there are lower rates of intimate-partner homicide.
Intimidation by gun
When Jeanne Muhammad tried to leave a boyfriend in her thirties, he held a gun to her head while her young children played in the other room. “The most dangerous time is when you try to leave someone,” she says. Even when he wasn’t handling the gun, he’d point his fingers at her and say bam bam.
A gun in the home can produce this type of coercive effect. “An abuser could be sitting on the sofa with a gun next to him, and the message his partner’s getting is, she’s not going anywhere, and he didn’t have to utter a word,” Gardner says. According to a study in the journal Trauma, Violence & Abuse, about 4.5 million U.S. women have had an intimate partner threaten them with a gun, and nearly 1 million have been shot or shot at by an intimate partner.
Guns become leverage, a form of power, Woodson Bradley says: “It doesn’t have to be flashed in your face or used to get you to concede.” An abuser just needs to glance at it. Abusers may also threaten to kill themselves, the children, or parents, Glenn says: “Anything they can say to maintain and gain control, they’ll do. The gun just makes threats more immediate.”
Firearms and self-defense
Even as people who’ve escaped abuse move to different states, or await state or federal policy changes and other interventions, they must choose how to survive and thrive. In Atlanta, Marchelle Davis is a domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor who bought a gun for self-defense and now trains other women, many of them women of color, in firearms and self-defense. About half of her students are survivors of domestic or intimate partner violence, she says. Davis teaches a variety of self-defense techniques, including situational awareness, getting fit, and non-lethal or less-than-lethal forms of defense. She says that a person’s mind is her first and best weapon — a firearm is a last resort. A transformation and empowerment occur among many of the women, Davis says. “I say that we’re survivors, not victims, and we’re here to take safety back. We’re here, and so many sisters haven’t made it.”
Davis agrees that statistically, women with firearms are more likely to have the guns used against them. Training is critical, she says. “You must train with a firearm and be mentally, emotionally and spiritually prepared to use one. If you’re not prepared to use one as legally intended, don’t buy it. But a firearm is a last resort.”
Gardner agrees that women who act to defend themselves must proceed with caution. “If you’re going to buy a weapon, you should also undertake continuous firearms training, so you are prepared to respond when in a crisis,” Gardner says. “The trauma response will be flight, fight, freeze, or appease. If you are going to fight and use a firearm, you have to know how to use your weapon. It’s about muscle memory, so you don’t freeze.” If that happens, the abuser could take the gun and use it.
In addition, advocates are concerned that when women defend themselves, they may be prosecuted as the offender; some violent perpetrators have convinced judicial systems that they’re the victims. “It’s often arrest first, ask questions later,” says Gardner. States are offering varying solutions to this issue. In New York, for example, the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act allows alternative sentences for defendants who show they were domestic violence victims, and resentencing for those already sentenced.
The personal decision to carry — or not
Although Muhammad purchased a gun for self-protection and was trained to use it, she now feels firearms can increase the danger in volatile situations. “Depending on that person’s situation, owning a gun might be what they feel they have to do at that time — it’s about survival. But when tempers are flaring and out of whack, the last thing you need, in my opinion, is a gun.”
Last year in Arizona, Vanessa Martinez was returning home with a cake for her youngest daughter’s birthday party when her ex-boyfriend surprised her outside her home. She heard him say, “If I can’t have you, no one can,” and she heard a bang. A bullet entered the right side of her head, just below her temple and exited at the back of her head.
Her ex-boyfriend pled guilty to various charges related to this incident and was sentenced to 15.5 years. Just a year after the shooting, during which she had brain surgery, her mental health is improving but she still struggles immensely from the single shot. Brain and nerve damage persist, along with vision and hearing impairment, and a balloon’s pop still startles her. The shattered skull fragments affected her memory and hearing. Martinez briefly considered getting a firearm for her peace of mind, but decided against it.
Woodson Bradley got a concealed weapons permit and owns a gun. She supports measures like Congress’s Bipartisan Act, as well as universal background checks and restrictions on ownership of certain types of weapons or by age. Says Bradley, “The Second Amendment mentions arming a well-regulated militia — not a disgruntled boyfriend or husband having a bad day.”
Lora Shinn writes about health, travel, home, money, and more for a wide range of outlets including Prevention, AFAR, U.S. News and World Report, and others. While in college, Lora worked and volunteered in domestic violence shelters, helping to provide childcare for children healing from the trauma of witnessing violence.
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