Last week, the Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill that would allow anyone 21 or older who is protected by a restraining order to carry a concealed handgun without a license for 45 days. The measure represents the latest effort by legislators and law enforcement officers around the country to encourage victims of domestic abuse to arm themselves. In June, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie directed his attorney general to fast-track concealed handgun permit applications for individuals “living under a direct or material threat.” And in August, a Louisiana sheriff urged domestic abuse victims in his parish to deal with their estranged partners by “shoot[ing] him in your backyard before he gets in your house. Drop him.”
A more effective way to reduce domestic violence deaths, gun violence prevention advocates argue, is to force abusers subject to restraining orders and domestic violence convictions to surrender their guns. When either the abuser or the victim is armed, things can turn deadly: Domestic assaults involving guns are 12 times more likely to result in death than assaults without them.
Ruth Glenn knows firsthand how dangerous it is to introduce firearms into a domestic violence situation. In 1992, months after she left an abusive marriage, Glenn’s estranged husband pulled her over on the side of the road. He shot her three times, twice in the head. After leaving her to die, he spent four months on the run from law enforcement before taking his own life.
Glenn, who now serves as the executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, spoke to The Trace about why some victims may not be emotionally or mentally prepared to use decisive force against an abuser.
How has the domestic violence prevention community reacted to legislation that would grant victims easier access to guns, like the bill currently making the rounds in Virginia?
There are a handful who do believe that victims should arm themselves. The vast majority feel like I do: that the safety of victims and survivors of domestic violence isn’t being considered. And it’s disappointing.
What would you say to a domestic violence victim who wants a gun for protection?
The argument is just fascinating to me, because most frequently victims and survivors are the ones who say, “I don’t want a gun, I feel like it will put me at more risk, and I can’t shoot or hurt the person I love.” Usually those who want to arm victims have not been involved in a domestic violence situation. Unless you know the dynamics of domestic violence, I think it’s really bad advice to say that a victim should have a gun.
One time, after I gave a presentation, a young person said, “Why didn’t you just steal the gun from him?” Well, I could have, but how much danger would I put myself in? Because now he doesn’t have the gun and maybe he’ll beat the crap out of me until he gets it back.
Did you ever think about using a gun against your former husband?
I cannot tell you about how many times I thought about hurting him, but it was never with a gun. I always thought, “I’ll wait until he’s asleep and stab him.” I was petrified of guns. They were something he used against me.
When my husband was in hiding after he shot me, people were trying to convince me to get a gun and protect myself. I said, “I just can’t. I don’t feel comfortable with them. I’m afraid I’ll shoot myself — and I don’t want to shoot him.” Because you still care about that person.
People don’t get into these relationships because they want to be hit, hurt, or beat. They get into them because they fell in love. My husband didn’t beat me until shortly after we were married. We’d already been together three years at that point and had our son. We got into a discussion which eventually turned to an argument, and he beat me up pretty good. That began about 14 years of violence — physical, financial, emotional.
I cared very deeply for him, and I thought it was gonna get better. There were several times where he’d say, “I’m very sorry, it won’t happen again.” I never called the police, and people often ask me why. Well, I had a son, and I did not want my son to lose his father. I was thinking, “We have a family. The family should be together. What are we going to do, go to a shelter?”
Women in domestic violence situations often return to their abuser after attempting to split. How does this affect the possibility of armed self-defense?
This is where we start victim-blaming, because we can’t understand why women are allowing themselves to be subjected to such abuse. But it becomes their norm for a long time. If you’re taking back someone who’s abused you, chances are you’re not going to kill them, even in self-defense.
And trust me, if you do have a gun and you decide you need to do something to stop the abuse, and that perpetrator is coming toward you, you’d better kill them. Because if you don’t, the consequences could be even greater.
How did the shooting happen?
He kidnapped me six months after I left him. I had just pulled up to my home after work. He held me at gunpoint for about four hours. I got loose, and he was immediately arrested and charged with felony kidnapping. At some point during one of the court hearings, he whispered to me, “You’re not going to live to see the next hearing.” Six weeks later he followed me home, pulled me over, and shot me.
After the shooting, your former husband went on the run for four months. Then he killed himself. How did you react when you learned he was dead?
The first thing I felt was relief, because I didn’t know where he was for four months and I was petrified that he would find me and my son and kill us. The second feeling was grief. I had been with this man for 16 years, married to him for three. Why wouldn’t I be grief stricken, no matter what the violence was?
Did you attend his funeral?
My son and I did. I even sent flowers to his grave for the first three years because I was heartbroken. It was the man I loved. It was my son’s father. I was heartbroken that a human being could not figure out another way to conduct his life than to hurt people.
A friend finally told me, “If you send one more bouquet of flowers…” But I sent them for my son, so that he can understand. He struggled a lot with hating his father but having love for him, and I finally said, “You can love him. You just don’t have to like the things that he did.”