Domestic Violence and Gun Violence:
Masculinity is a Public Health Threat
Life in a domestic violence shelter is full of rules.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I read the news about men who drive their cars into festivals and protests, killing neighbors and grandparents; boys who bring their dad’s guns to school, killing and injuring their classmates and teachers. A white boy can bring an AK-47 to protests and kill people with that weapon of war, and walk away, both free and alive. His actions were sanctioned from the micro level (his peers and family) to the macro level (judge and jury and right-wing juggernaut).
But women and children who have been abused, who must flee their homes and upend their lives, find themselves at shelters, only to learn that they can’t smoke on the porch once the sun goes down or watch movies after 11pm.
My first job after I got my degree wasn’t teaching, but was working at a domestic violence shelter. I studied Sociology, and then got a first hand look at how gender inequality is built into social institutions.
While working at the shelter, I learned from the women and children who lived there how these rules have the potential to re-traumatize. In group empowerment classes, while talking about songs like Ex-Factor by Lauryn Hill or movies like What’s Love Got to Do With It, and making connections to their own lives, these strong and powerful women talked about how not being able to cook without signing up for a time (because of shared living), not being able to smoke or watch a movie when they wanted, not being able to befriend another housemate enough to watch her kids for her while she went on a job interview, felt like living (again) under the power of someone else. It felt like they were temporarily physically safe, but not free. This was the cost of their and their children’s safety.
All the while, the law allows abusers to walk free, paying only a small amount in bail, after attempting to kill their partners and children. It’s only after that same abuser drives his car into a Christmas festival that those working in that legal system wonder: maybe he got off too easy?
Why wasn’t his murder attempt on his (ex)partner and child enough to make us ask that question?
The Kyle Rittenhouse case has brought some needed attention to a girl who killed her abuser/trafficker in self-defense: a man who had previously been arrested for child sexual assault. But as all good intersectional theorists know, our society’s legal system protects white men, not girls of color. Our society’s legal system more often protects the violent, not the victims.
So, while abusers walk free and purchase guns and take out their retribution on loved ones and strangers alike, the rest of us have to live in fear of the next private shooting, and of the next public shooting. And those actively fleeing this abuse must live a life full of rules in a shelter that denies them their freedom while attempting to keep them safe.
Gender inequality, as it is built into the law and into our social policies and practices, is a public health emergency. We can talk about gun laws, certainly, but while doing so, we must also talk about men, masculinity and domestic violence. As Bloomberg reported with this headline and tagline:
Deadliest Mass Shootings Are Often Preceded by Violence at Home: An analysis of 749 mass shootings over the past six years found that about 60% were either domestic violence attacks or committed by men with histories of domestic violence.
And as Everytown reported:
Although many people think of mass shootings as random acts of violence, this analysis shows that most mass shootings are not at all random: In at least 53 percent of mass shootings between 2009 and 2020, the perpetrator shot a current or former intimate partner or family member during the rampage. These domestic violence-related mass shootings resulted in at least 632 people shot and killed and 106 people wounded, amounting to almost half of all mass shooting deaths and one in ten injuries.
Our laws and policies reflect our values, and by this metric, we value violent masculinity far more than we value the lives and safety of women and children.
That’s not the society that I want to live in.
It’s time we push back on this narrative and talk about what’s really going on. As Ani DiFranco wrote in her song, To The Teeth, “the edge is closer than you think when your men bring the guns home.” Conversations about gun violence should always be conversations about men and masculinity; and about domestic violence. Any conversations about — or changes in — gun policy should also be conversations about — and changes in — domestic violence policy.