Gun violence in the United States is at the center of the news cycle. High-school students who experienced firsthand the most recent school shooting are tired of the rhetoric that seems to follow every mass-shooting, with little to no accompanying policy change to actually save lives. Why do we, as a society, stand by and allow this to continue?
The answer, in part, may be found in how we confront violence against women at the hands of domestic partners. When it comes to gun violence against women, the United States is the most dangerous country in the developed world, notes Everytown for Gun Safety. In an average month, 50 American women are shot to death by their partners. Black women are twice as likely as white women to die at the hands of an intimate partner, especially after trying to leave the relationship. Close to 4.5 million women in the U.S. have been threatened with a gun by an intimate partner.
Those who commit mass shootings are statistically most likely to be male and white. Many have histories of abusing their partners. In the aftermath of the latest school shooting, the Oregon House passed a bill that closed a loophole in an existing law and makes it illegal for people convicted of domestic violence or those with restraining orders against them to possess weapons. But that’s far from enough.
Far too often, women — especially Black women — who defend themselves against intimate partner violence are imprisoned. But should women be punished for protecting themselves against the violence, including gun violence, that society seems to be ignoring? Are we criminalizing the impacts of trauma and abuse on women’s lives?
In a recent episode of the video series Divided States of America, host Liz Plank explores what criminal justice advocates call the “sexual violence-to-prison pipeline” and how women are fighting back.
Most girls and women who are incarcerated in the United States are survivors of sexual abuse. Cyntoia Brown is one of them.
When she was 16 years old, Brown was sentenced to life in prison for killing a man who solicited her for sex. She was also the victim of sex-trafficking and had been regularly physically abused by a man who had forced her into prostitution. Cyntoia says the murder was an act of self-defense. The Marshall Project explains:
She was a young girl constantly surrounded by danger. She was in a strange setting with a man she did not know but whom she knew to be armed. She was frightened when he reached suddenly under his bed and acted to save her life.
Still, the law was not on her side:
What happened to Brown certainly upsets any reasonable person’s sense of justice but, sadly, her prosecution, conviction, and sentence fit within the letter of the law. In fact, an analysis of the details in her case against the law suggests that the criminal justice system didn’t fail Brown. Rather, it simply wasn’t designed to protect her. [emphasis mine]
It was as if her history of abuse and trauma had simply never happened. Or, at the very least, it seemed that the justice system had failed to take any of it into account when she was sentenced.
Marissa Alexander, a Florida mother of three, made headlines in 2012 after being convicted of aggravated assault for firing a warning shot into the ceiling of her home, so she could stop her husband from attacking her. No one was hurt. Still, she was sentenced to the mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison. Though she was released after five years on a plea deal, her sentencing never took into account the years of abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband. She now fights for justice for women in similar situations through her organization, Marissa Alexander Justice Project.
Just like the students and parents impacted by gun violence who are saying no more, women in New York who have survived abuse and intimate partner violence only to find themselves jailed for protecting themselves are fighting for a new law that would take into account the complexity of trauma and abuse during sentencing.
The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA) in New York would help women who are convicted of crimes directly related to the abuse they’ve suffered. The law would allow judges to sentence women to shorter prison terms or to replace prison with community-based alternatives. For domestic violence survivors who have already been convicted of crimes, it would allow them to apply to the courts for resentencing.
The violence we see perpetrated in our schools and in our homes are rarely random incidents. They are often connected by a long thread of male violence against their intimate partners. Women suffer through years of this abuse only to be re-victimized by the criminal justice system when they try to protect themselves. The hope is that laws like DVSJA will put a stop to this. But in addition to laws that soften the blow of the impact of violence committed by men against their partners, we must work to prevent the abuse in the first place. Both women’s and young people’s lives depend upon a society willing to confront our out-of-control gun violence that links school shootings and domestic violence.