After the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, each side of the national gun-control debate turned to women to give their agenda an edge. Such women who testify at House committee hearings usually fall into one of a few predictable archetypes. Batting for the liberal team are grieving mothers, often white, who have lost children to gun violence. This was demonstrated on Wednesday night at the first Democratic debate when Martin O’Malley used an anecdote about a bereaved mother to support his argument for stricter gun laws. On the other side, however, are two more characters: the young, single woman who refuses to be a victim and the fierce “mama bear” who uses firearms to protect her family.
The problem is that none of these whitewashed, middle-class archetypes represent the realities of how women encounter guns. In this country, we have an instinct to talk about gun violence as if the perpetrators are strangers far removed from the daily lives of the victims. This just is not the case.
Women are more than 16 times more likely to be murdered with a gun by their intimate partner than they are to be murdered by a male stranger with all other weapons combined, according to a 2012 report by the Washington-based Violence Policy Center. In addition, guns are the weapons used most often in domestic homicides — more than all other means combined. In 2010 for instance, 94 percent of female homicide victims were killed by men they knew, which means that women were 16 times more likely to be killed by someone familiar than an unnamed “criminal.” Statistically speaking, guns in the home are a far bigger threat to women’s safety than they are a means of protection.
That this is not represented in gun-control rhetoric plays into the toxic misconception that violence against women is committed by strangers. Perhaps it is easier to digest a myth that most shooters are outcasts on the margins of society, than the unsettling reality that gun violence is more often committed by the men within our communities. It is the same mindset that exists in regards to sexual misconduct in which we attribute assault to a rogue aggressor, rather than violence by an intimate partner.
What’s more, women who do use guns in self-defense are often punished severely for doing so. In the U.S., 90 percent of women in jail for killing men have been battered by the individuals they targeted, according to an article in The Boston Globe. In addition, they received sentences that were about 70 percent longer than those of men who killed intimate partners. It’s also important to note that black women were convicted more often and given longer sentences than women of any other race. In the most vulnerable communities, women have a reason to be afraid to defend themselves.
It seems that for men, the dangers from which a gun could serve as protection are abstract. For example, the unknown “criminal” in the home or the improbable, but apparently still scary, tyrannical government takeover. But for women, the threat of violence is better rooted in reality. There are more female teachers in the schools where these shootings happen than there are male teachers. When a gun is in the home, women are faced with a real possibility of violence in a way men are not.
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to implicate the whole male population in this problem. My point is that ignoring the racial and gendered trends in gun violence leads to ineffective policies. When we talk about gun control, we have a lot of inaccurate and unproductive conversations, which end up costing many women their lives, especially women in minority groups.
We need to frame our discourse on gun control differently. If we are to mitigate gun violence in the U.S., we need to stop constructing these false facades about the real impact of guns on women’s lives.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Though this issue is far more complex than its intersection with guns, dismissing these misconceptions about women’s arms possession is an important first step. Only then can we actually work toward tackling gun violence and where it hurts women most.
Cassie Lignelli is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .