In 2020, as millions feared dying from COVID, thousands sheltering inside their homes faced another potential death threat as both domestic violence and gun sales increased. Numerous studies have shown that when an abusive partner has access to a gun, they are five times more likely to kill their partner. The Violence Policy Center found that firearms were the most commonly used weapon by men to kill women in the United States.
Despite this violence, an increasing number of states are rolling back protections that could keep guns out of the hands of abusive partners.
By federal law, anyone convicted of domestic abuse or who has an order of protection against them must surrender their guns. Enforcement, however, is left up to individual states. In Tennessee, a person convicted of abuse can simply sign an affidavit stating that they’re giving their guns to a friend or relative. They need not provide proof and nothing prohibits that person from returning the gun(s).
Tennessee has one of the highest rates of women killed by men, the majority of whom are partners or family members using a gun. This did not stop legislators this year from passing a law eliminating the requirement for a gun permit. The law does not supersede the federal obligation to surrender firearms, but now, unless there is an active investigation, a person is not obliged to tell police or provide proof that they are a legal gun owner. Eighteen other states do not require a permit for carrying guns in public.
“Eliminating the requirement for a gun permit makes it much easier to intimidate, violate and advance the dangers for domestic violence victims,” Tiffany Spence, a Tennessee mother and military veteran, told Truthout. Spence should know. Her husband Fabian owned multiple guns — some legally, others not — and used them as tools for intimidation and abuse. But when she used one of those guns to defend herself, the full weight of the legal system came crashing down on her.
Women who use guns find that they are unable to convince prosecutors, juries and judges that they did so in self-defense. This is especially true of Black women, like Spence, who must combat deeply-ingrained stereotypes of Black women as angry and aggressive rather than as victims of violence, even though Black women are nearly three times more likely than white women to be killed by men.
“We Were in the Middle of a Typhoon”
As an army sharpshooter, Spence was no stranger to guns. She had spent many a night listening to gunfire while deployed in Afghanistan. But she was still terrified when her own husband used guns to threaten her and their children.
In 2008, Spence recalled returning home after picking up their 3-month-old son from the babysitter’s. Her husband accused her of being late, then took one of his guns from his truck and continued to scream at her. Terrified, she called 911. After his arrest, he was forced to surrender that gun although he still kept two others. Spence filed for an order of protection and planned to appear in criminal court. She dropped both the charges and the order of protection after her father-in-law made her feel guilty about sending the father of her children to jail and, because Fabian was not a citizen, into deportation proceedings. The police returned his gun after she dropped the charges.
Another time, he woke her up and pointed a gun at her in a jealous fit after a neighbor told him that he had seen her car at another man’s house. Even after Spence reminded him that, on the day in question, Fabian had taken her car and she had taken his truck, he refused to lower the gun. Instead, she recalled, he found other faults — that she no longer greeted him at the door when he came home and that she didn’t call him as often. “This went on for several hours until it was time for me to go to work,” she told Truthout.
Even after the couple had separated, he continued to threaten her. Once, she said, he kicked in the door to her apartment. He sent threatening text messages. One night in May 2013, several hours before she was scheduled to bring their sons to him, she received another threat-filled text. She went to the police station for help and was told that the police do not intervene in custody exchanges unless there is a threat. An officer offered to talk to her husband, who did not answer his phone. “I was alone and scared,” she said. Her son told her that she could drop him and his younger brother off at the top of the street so that their father would not hurt her.
Spence does not remember much of what happened later that night except that she shot Fabian, who died. “That night seemed like we were in the middle of a typhoon where everything was happening so fast,” she told Truthout.
Spence’s lack of memory about that night is not unusual. “Trauma disrupts memory,” says Leigh Goodmark, author of Decriminalizing Domestic Violence and director of the University of Maryland’s Gender Violence Clinic. “Trauma makes it more difficult to form and recall memory — and to recall memory in a linear fashion.” In effect, the brain protects a person from having to relive a traumatic moment over and over by blocking it out. But this protection becomes problematic in a legal system that expects a linear, coherent narrative and tends to disbelieve people who cannot recount their experiences in that fashion.
Spence was convicted of second-degree murder and is currently serving a 13.5-year sentence in Tennessee.
“Men Use Guns to Force Women to Stay or Obey. When We Use Them, It’s to Get Away.”
Kwaneta Harris is currently serving a 50-year sentence for fatally shooting her sometimes-boyfriend Michael Giles. The pair met in England where Harris’s first husband served in the Air Force under Giles. The few Black families on the base gravitated towards each other. When her husband was assigned to other countries, Giles checked on her. One night, he brought a box of wine — and told her about her husband’s affair. Harris remembers crying — and drinking. She doesn’t think she was drunk but remembers that it was the most she’d ever drank before. The two had sex, starting an affair that would continue intermittently for over a decade. As Harris’s marriage grew increasingly volatile, Giles became her confidant and support.
Looking back, Harris, now 48, recognizes warning signs that, in her early 20s and trapped in a violent marriage far from home, she had missed. “He was always telling me what to do, wear, cook, etc.,” she told Truthout in a series of letters from prison. “I didn’t see it as controlling, more as he’s helping,” she recalled.
When her marriage grew even more violent, Giles helped plan her escape back to Michigan. The two kept in touch, but by the time Giles returned to the U.S., Harris had remarried, but her second husband was also becoming violent. Giles remained someone she could turn to and they soon resumed their relationship.
In 2001, Harris was at the hospital with her grandfather, who had just been diagnosed with colon cancer, when Giles called. He had flown in for a surprise visit and demanded that she pick him up at the airport. After she rushed over, the two argued in the airport parking lot and he spit on her. It was not his first instance of physical abuse, she said, recalling that he shoved, manhandled and choked her several times when they were in England.
After that, the two slowly stopped talking until Harris stopped returning his calls. Harris and her second husband had a daughter, then divorced.
Several years later, Giles called. By then, Harris had gotten engaged — and told him so. She recalled that he was calm and funny, with no trace of the jealousy or controlling side he had previously exhibited. They talked on and off for a few months, though Harris never told him about her daughter. Then Giles tried to persuade Harris to move from Michigan to Texas, where he had bought a house. That was when Harris realized she needed to end their relationship. “I really felt that he has been there [for me] so I should tell him in person,” she recalled thinking. In July 2006, she flew down to Texas.
That evening, she recalled that the two argued about what she was wearing. Then Giles learned about Harris’s daughter and began screaming at her. Harris yelled back, something she had never done before. “In my mind, what was Giles going to do? Hit me? Fine and I’d hit him back,” she recalled. Then Giles pulled out a gun — and her bravery evaporated. She thought about her children and her mother and the fact that no one knew where she was. To appease him, they had sex. After he choked her, she began massaging him and murmuring words of love to calm him. Then she grabbed the gun and shot him.
“I think men use guns to force women to stay or obey,” Harris reflected. “But when we use them, it’s to get away.”
“If You Buy a Gun, You’re Going to Use a Gun”
If it weren’t for her husband’s gun, Sirena Whittington never would have bought a gun for herself.
Even before they married, Whittington’s husband showed signs of trying to control her — questioning her whereabouts and even going as far as to check the mileage on her car. At the time, Whittington, barely out of her teen years, believed his jealousy was a sign of love.
Shortly after their wedding vows, the physical abuse began. The 22-year-old blamed herself. “What did I do wrong,” she asked herself. “Could I have done something different?” But nothing she did stopped his assaults.
By the time their second daughter was born, the violence had gotten worse. “Every night, he put his hands on me,” she told Truthout. When he began threatening their children, then ages 2 and 4, she bought a knife and stashed it under the mattress on her side of the bed. One night, after throwing her across their bed, he brandished her knife, taunting, “You looking for this?” Then, he pulled out a gun.
Whittington had no idea that her husband owned a gun and decided she needed one to protect herself and their daughters. She went to a gun store, told them she needed a gun for personal protection and filled out the paperwork. No one questioned her motive. She placed her gun in a box in her closet with the safety on to keep her children from accidentally shooting it if they found it.
On Friday, March 26, 1999, Whittington was getting ready for work when her husband demanded that she drive him to work because the tires on his car were flat. When they arrived at his office, their younger daughter, who was potty-training, needed to use the bathroom, so they went inside. When Whittington and their daughter emerged from the bathroom, her husband pulled out a gun and began threatening her.
Whittington’s memories about what happened next aren’t clear. She’s not sure whose gun he was brandishing. She recalls her daughter, who had been playing with the office water cooler, turning around and saying, “Leave mommy alone.” She recalls her husband threatening to kill both mother and child, then pointing the gun at the toddler. Then she remembers him falling, her picking her daughter up, and driving away.
The next day, police contacted her and asked her to come in for questioning on Monday. “I went to the police station and never came back out,” she said. She was arrested and ultimately convicted of second-degree murder. She was sentenced to 50 years in prison; after 15 years, she received a 10-year reduction. In April 2019, after 19 years and six months in prison, she was paroled.
Whittington reiterates that she only bought a gun because her husband had threatened her and her children’s lives with a gun. Her fear wasn’t unwarranted: According to the Violence Policy Center, the number of Black women shot and killed by their husband or intimate partners (162 victims) was more than three times as high as those murdered by male strangers using all weapons combined (48 victims).
“If you buy a gun, you’re going to use a gun,” she reflected. “There’s really no way out. Someone is going to die.”
“If There Hadn’t Been a Gun in the House, He Might Be Alive”
One evening, 45-year-old “Sissy” walked through the door carrying bags of groceries only to find herself facing the barrel of a gun. That was how she learned that her boyfriend owned a gun. (Sissy asked to be identified only by her prison nickname and that her victim’s name not be published to protect their families’ privacy.)
In a letter from prison, Sissy explained that her boyfriend had returned home early from work while Sissy was out with her godsister. It wasn’t unusual for her not to be home, but that afternoon, her boyfriend began drinking and, as the hours passed, started to imagine that she was out with another man. By the time Sissy returned home, he had worked himself into a frenzy and, when he heard her come in, pointed his gun at her. Shocked, Sissy backed away, groceries still in hand, until she reached her car. Then she drove away, staying away for nearly a year despite his many calls and apologies. She did not call the police or file for an order of protection.
The couple eventually reconciled. Perhaps it was the fact that she was growing older and feeling lonely, but she recalled not wanting to throw away their nine-year relationship, noting that, aside from his drinking, which had resulted in several drunk driving arrests, and the gun incident, he was “a really great guy.” He agreed to get rid of his gun and began attending a support group at a local church; the group was mostly Black men with whom her boyfriend developed a rapport.
Then the couple moved from Virginia to Alabama, where his family lived. There, Sissy had no support system — and her boyfriend lacked the community support to help keep him sober and calm. He began drinking again and became more aggressive. Still, Sissy stuck by him. The couple was in the process of buying a house together and Sissy hoped that owning their home would calm him.
Then, she found his gun and decided to confront him. “We were in the process of buying a house and I want[ed] to stress that that gun would not be going with us and he was going to have to choose,” she recalled. But the argument quickly turned violent and her boyfriend began choking her. When he let go, she grabbed the gun and started to run. She had no intention of shooting him, she wrote, but she wanted him to let her escape. “I thought he was behind me and the gun just start[ed] going off like fireworks is all I can think of and I never knew that any bullets hit him. I just kept running, never looking back.” Later, she found out that the bullets had hit him and he had died.
In 2002, the 48-year-old entered the Alabama prison system on a 50-year sentence. She is now 67. In 2014, she was denied parole. In April 2021, she was denied parole again. She must wait until April 2026 for her next hearing; by then, Sissy will be 72 years old.
If There Hadn’t Been a Gun
Opponents of gun control argue that women need guns to protect themselves from assault. Goodmark disagrees.
“Wholesale gun control is what needs to happen,” Goodmark said. As long as guns are readily available, abusive people will use guns to terrorize their partners and some of those partners will turn to guns to defend themselves. The only way to stop abusive people from using guns to further terrorize their partners is to get rid of the guns in society.
Goodmark cautioned that relying on criminalization and criminal law to enforce gun restrictions disproportionately devastates communities of color, which are already disproportionately targeted by police and prisons. Civil laws that restrict people under restraining orders from having — or keeping — their guns could be utilized instead, but these often remain unenforced. Texas, for instance, prohibits people who have protective orders issued against them from owning guns, but many of the state’s 254 counties don’t have a process for enforcement.
If there had not been a gun present, what might have happened to these women?
“I think about that all the time,” Spence wrote from prison. “I do not know.”
Neither does Sissy.
“If the gun wasn’t there, I would have just fought him,” Harris wrote from prison. “But that gun. It changed everything. One of us was gonna see the cemetery and I couldn’t let it be me.”
Whittington believes that her ex-husband’s violence would have escalated, even without a gun, but he wouldn’t have died — at least not by her hand. “Getting that weapon seals your fate one way or another,” she told Truthout.