Everyday Terrorism: The intersection of guns and domestic violence

Erin McCarthy, left, and Babette Jamison (photo by Sarah Whiting)

“I thought my first name was ‘bitch’ for years,” says Erin McCarthy. Despite the fact that the man who was her long-term partner and father of her child abused her regularly she says, “I considered him my loved one.” 

The brutality and humiliation reached a climax one night when she was on the phone talking with her father. Her partner was high, and the longer she was on the phone the angrier he got. He snapped and pulled a gun. In a hail of bullets, she ran with her daughter into an upstairs bedroom. 

Eventually, the police arrived. They took McCarthy and her daughter to Women’s Advocates in St. Paul which, in addition to providing shelter, offers support, advocacy, education and other resources that women and children need to move on from the shelter to independent, violence-free lives in the larger community. 

A deadly pairing

As abusers feel a loss of control, guns become an easy tool to regain a sense of power by terrorizing their victims. McCarthy explains that rage becomes a high and with guns in the mix, violence escalates and quickly becomes deadly. Yet, she says, “Guns were common for our lifestyle,” she says. “People just carried guns.” 

In many ways, McCarthy’s experience is typical of the desperate routine of humiliation and abuse, apologies and promises involved in domestic violence. It also illustrates how guns are a game changer in an abusive environment. 

McCarthy and her daughter escaped alive. But, says Women’s Advocates Executive Director Babette Jamison, “The presence of a gun greatly increases the likelihood that a woman in a domestic violence situation will lose her life.” According to research published in the American Journal of Public Health, an abused woman is five times more likely to be killed if her abuser owns a gun. 

So, while mass shootings and terrorist attacks grab all the headlines, the “homegrown terrorism” of domestic violence poses an exponentially greater threat. Shootings of women and children occur one by one, day after day . 

According to an Everytown for Gun Safety report, nearly 12,000 Americans are murdered with guns every year – a rate more than 20 times that of other developed countries. In an average month, 52 American women are killed by a partner with a gun. Almost two-thirds of women murdered with guns are killed by intimate partners. According to 2013 FBI data examined in the annual Violence Policy Center report “When Men Murder Women,” 62 percent of the 1,438 female victims who knew their killer were murdered by a partner. 

Here in Minnesota, according to FBI data compiled by The Center for American Progress, from 2003 to 2012 there were 265 female homicide victims. Domestic violence accounted for 107 of these deaths, and guns were used to murder 53 percent of these women. 

Some suggest that an abused woman should obtain a gun to defend herself, but from a statistical perspective, that rarely works.

Changing a mindset

McCarthy says she’s still healing from her trauma, 25 years later. “You never forget, ” she says. “But now I’m not just surviving, I’m thriving.” And she’s determined to pass all that she’s learned on to others, especially her daughter and her grandchildren. 

McCarthy has worked as an aftercare specialist at Women’s Advocates for nine years. In that role – a life coach of sorts – she helps abused women put together all the resources and support they need to create healthy lives. “There’s so much more they need than just shelter,” she says. “They need to get back their dignity, a positive mindset, employment and a positive social network.” 

“One of my greatest fears is that we’re becoming immune to violence and making no response. It’s our responsibility to talk about the intersection of domestic violence and gun violence,” says Jamison. Women’s Advocates believes public conversation can help reduce domestic gun violence, which is why the organization plays a role in education as well as helping survivors. 

Domestic abuse organizations agree that better gun laws reduce homicides, but also call for a focus on why and where such violence comes. Women’s Advocates held a series of community conversations in 2014, to explore the root causes and potential solutions of violence. In 2016, they will begin focusing on how guns play a role. 

Gun violence is common in younger men, McCarthy says, because so many guns are available to them and weapons are part of their identity – a symbol of power. 

Jamison advocates for more community-based education about respect and how to manage emotions, in addition to passing legislation. “We’re looking for ways to involve men as advocates. Education and communication with young people is key.” 

She’d like to see greater public awareness on the issue. “It’s a public health issue and it affects generations,” says Jamison. 

McCarthy hopes it will become as recognized an issue as, say, breast cancer, with NFL players wearing ribbons to bring awareness to it. 

Jamison adds, “It’s not just ‘criminals’ doing this. It’s an issue that crosses socio-economic lines, and it can happen to anybody. 

“Bullets,” she says, “don’t discriminate.”