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Civil Rights, Criminal Justice, Culture, Gender, Government, Gun Control, Gun Violence, Health Disparities, Politics, Public Health, Public Policy, Social Justice, Society, Women's Health, Women's Rights

The Gun Violence Threat That No One Is Talking About — And Why Women Should Be Concerned

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Women’s health issues are in the news a lot lately, and for good reason: across the nation, conservative lawmakers are targeting women’s reproductive rights and access to basic health care services like contraceptive counseling and family planning. Attacks on women’s health and rights have been particularly aggressive in recent months, with Congressional Republicans nearly shutting down the government in an effort to defund Planned Parenthood.

But there’s another issue facing women that doesn’t get nearly as much attention, even though it’s a major public health problem affecting women in the U.S. disproportionately more than women in other high-income countries. It sends almost 75,000 people to emergency rooms each year with life-threatening conditions. It’s something that kills over 31,000 Americans each year, many during the prime of their life. And it’s completely preventable.

What am I talking about?

Gun violence.

We all know that gun violence is a major problem in America, but the debate over gun safety rarely mentions the implications for women. When women are included in the discussion, we’re usually being told by pro-gun advocates that we need guns to protect ourselves from scary intruders and home invasions. Take political commentator and attorney Gayle Trotter, for instance, who argued last year that not only do women need guns, but that we need AR-15 semi-automatic weapons to fend off attackers in our home:

“An assault weapon in the hands of a young woman defending her babies in her home becomes a defense weapon. And the peace of mind that women has as she’s facing three, four, five violent attackers, intruders in her home, with her children screaming in the background, the peace of mind that she has knowing that she has a scary looking gun gives her more courage when she’s fighting hardened, violent criminals.” 

That was Trotter’s testimony during last year’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence. Trotter didn’t provide any statistics on the frequency with which women successfully fight off “three, four, five violent attackers,” but the data we do have show that this scenario is highly unlikely, if not entirely implausible.

Women and Guns: What the Research Shows

Gun-ViolenceWhile men are most likely to be killed in the street or other public places, women are most likely to be murdered at home. Acquaintances pose the greatest risk for men, while women are overwhelmingly more likely to be killed by a current or former intimate partner.  

Three women a day are murdered in the U.S., the vast majority of whom are killed by men who they once thought loved them, and who might argue that they still do. Of all female homicide victims each year, eleven times as many are murdered by someone they know — usually a current or former partner — than by a stranger. The number of females shot and killed by their spouse or intimate partner is more than four times higher than the total number murdered by strangers using all weapons combined.

As I’ve written about previously, guns often play a terrifying role in the lives of domestic violence victims. Guns kill more victims of domestic violence than all other weapons combined, and when a convicted abuser has access to a gun in the home, their victim is eight times more likely to be killed in a domestic dispute. According to researcher Dr. Susan Sorenson, “access to a gun is a potent predictor of a fatal assault” among victims of domestic violence. 

Importantly, Dr. Sorenson points out that firearms are used for nonfatal forms of intimate partner violence, as well. This observation is important because most intimate partner violence is ongoing, nonfatal abuse,” writes Dr. Sorenson. 

In cases where women are abused but not murdered by intimate partners in households with guns, firearms are frequently used to coerce behavior, such as sex, or to instill terror. And research shows that firearm ownership is more common in abusive homes than in the general population. In one study of residents of battered women’s shelters, more than one third of the victims reported that there was a firearm in the home, whereas only about one sixth of women in the general population report that there is a firearm in the home.

Frighteningly, in more than two thirds of the abusive households that contained a firearm, the abusive partner used the gun(s) against the woman — usually threatening to shoot/kill her (71.4%). “In other words, when there was a gun in the home where battering had occurred, it commonly was used against the woman,” the researchers conclude

Moreover, the researchers also found that victims of domestic violence rarely used weapons to defend themselves against an abusive partner. 

“Battered women were substantially less likely to use a weapon against an intimate partner than to have it used against them,” the researchers said. For guns, specifically, the findings are even worse: a gun in the home is more than 10 times more likely to be used by an abuser to threaten, intimidate, or injure a victim than it is to be used by the victim in self-defense. In fact, in the few instances in which women did use weapons in self-defense, guns were among the least-used weapons: only about 2% of women who ever used a weapon in self-defense used a gun, compared to approximately 80% who used their hands or fists, 30% who used a door or a wall, 15% who used a kitchen knife, and 25% who used other household items (note: numbers do not add up to 100% because some women used multiple types of weapons in self-defense). 

Guns also greatly increase the risk of repeat abuse for victimized women. According to a 2014 study published in the journal Violence Against Women, abused women are up to 83 percent more likely to experience repeat abuse by their male partners if a gun is used in the initial abuse incident.

These findings overwhelmingly show that guns are an ineffective — and often dangerous — means of self-defense. And given that most incidents of violence against women, including rape, assault and murder, are perpetrated at the hands of an intimate partner, these studies undermine the claims of pro-gun advocates who say that guns make women safer in the face of violence. Not only do guns not protect women in violent situations, but they actually escalate the violence and increase their chances of being killed

Exposure to Violence: A Threat To Women’s Health

gun_control030413On top of the threat posed by guns in the home, the prevalence of gun violence in society imposes a striking burden on women. Women in the U.S. die from firearm injuries in a higher proportion than in any other high-income country, and U.S. women’s exposure to gun violence is shockingly common.

Frequent exposure to gun violence in the community has extremely detrimental effects on women, and for mothers, the impact of witnessing violence has the double effect of impacting both their health and that of their children. Children are exposed to community gun violence at disturbingly high rates, particularly in the inner city. It is estimated that one quarter of low income urban youth have witnessed a murder by firearm. Even more shockingly, over 85% of urban youth witness some form of firearm-related violence, and nearly 70% report direct victimization. The frequency of exposure to firearm violence among urban youth has devastating effects including PTSD, depression, anxiety, poor physical health, and behavioral disorders.

Exposure to gun violence in the community has similar effects on women. Women who have witnessed firearm-related violence in their neighborhood are significantly more likely to experience depression and anxiety, and to have chronic physical illnesses. During pregnancy, exposure to gun violence is associated with a wide range of negative physical and mental health effects, as well as poorer birth outcomes.  For mothers, the effects may be even more severe. Mothers with a high exposure to neighborhood gun violence are twice as likely to report poorer mental and physical health, poor sleep habits, and unhealthy coping strategies such as smoking. Further, the detrimental effects of exposure to gun violence can influence mothers’ ability to care for their children and to successfully maintain employment.

Involving Women in the Push For Smarter Gun Laws

GunControl-350x262Women have a special role to play in moving policy and culture when it comes to the detrimental impact of gun violence on women and society as a whole. In recent polling it has become clear that women view gun violence differently than men do and are nearly unanimous in wanting a multi-faceted response. Women are significantly less likely than men to say that having a gun in the home makes them feel safer, and support for gun safety laws like universal background checks is substantially higher among women.

And although we are rarely included in the political debate over gun violence prevention, more and more women are recognizing the importance of making our voices heard. 

Former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ), who was shot during a 2011 campaign event in Tuscon, Arizona, is among several female leaders involved in the push for safer gun laws. Last year, Giffords urged the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing on preventing gun violence against women as the first step towards passing new gun legislation.

“[M]any of those who perpetrate violence against women are still allowed easy access to firearms,” Giffords wrote in an open letter to the Judiciary Committee. “On behalf of more than 500,000 members of Americans for Responsible Solutions, I strongly urge you to hold a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss ways to prevent gun violence against women.”

Feminists are increasingly discussing the gendered politics of gun violence and bringing attention to the devastating toll that gun violence takes on women. And in towns and cities across the country, women are banding together to reach out directly to other women, educating them about the dangers of firearms and the risk they pose for women. Ladies Involved in Putting a Stop to Inner-City Killing (LIPSTICK) is a Boston-based group devoted to “reducing the willingness of women and girls to engage in high-risk behaviors involving guns.” One of the main goals of the group is to prevent women from being used to buy, hide or hold guns for those who can’t legally own them. Unfortunately, women are often used in the illegal trafficking of guns, and many of these women are completely unaware of the role they are playing in the illegal sale and trade of firearms. Through education and advocacy, LIPSTICK involves women in stopping the flow of guns to criminals and reducing gun violence in communities across the country.

Women are also behind some of the most successful gun violence prevention campaigns in the country. Women Against Gun Violence is one of the nation’s leading gun safety advocacy groups, founded on the idea of “taking on gun violence as a women’s issue and focusing on violence prevention on a community level.” The group started back in 1993, “in response to the gun industry’s expansive marketing campaign toward women, the surging handgun homicide rates.” Believing that women are agents of social change, then 64 year old Los Angeles Police Commissioner Ann Reiss Lane and Betty Friedan, leader of the feminist movement and author of The Feminine Mystique, joined forces to bring women into the movement. Along with a coalition of women and their families, the group worked to profoundly change the climate of the gun violence debate. Today, Women Against Gun Violence has a growing following as it works to mobilize women to help educate the public, policymakers and the media about the human, financial and public health consequences of gun violence.

Moms Demand Action For Gun Sensecommonly referred to as Moms Demand Action, is another leading group of women involved in the push for safer gun laws. The group was founded by Shannon Watts the day after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012, and within a year it had grown into a major advocacy group with 130,000 members and chapters in all 50 states. Moms Demand Action has lobbied members of Congress to strengthen and expand background checks for individuals purchasing guns, and most recently the group joined forces with Mayors Against Illegal Guns to launch Everytown For Gun Safety, one of the largest gun safety campaigns in history. 

Women have enormous potential to change the policies and politics that can reduce gun violence. In the wake of a string of tragic events including last week’s deadly mass shooting at an Oregon community college, and the daily gun violence we face in our communities, women are in a new moment for action on this issue —  which is much broader than just guns, but gets to other deep-rooted societal issues we must tackle. By working on this issue together, we can also help build cohesion and strength among women leaders and activists, ultimately making the country a better, and safer, place to be a woman. 

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