Last April, Pamela Smith shot and killed her estranged husband in an altercation in her Pike County, Kentucky, home. She had previously obtained a restraining order against him, and she claimed she acted in self-defense. Although Kentucky law protects a person’s right to fight back against an attack, to “stand [one’s] ground and meet force with force, including deadly force,” Smith was arrested and indicted for second-degree manslaughter.
Today’s advocates of “armed citizenship” — the idea that law-abiding citizens should be armed and prepared to defend themselves with lethal violence — would have us believe that robust self-defense laws and personal firearms will make women safer from gender-based violence. In this argument, firearms are the great equalizer, allowing women to protect themselves from larger male perpetrators. NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre has famously asserted, “the one thing a violent rapist deserves to face is a good woman with a gun.” Concern for women’s vulnerability to crime has proved a powerful rhetorical tool in the gun rights arsenal.
While conducting research for my new book, which traces the history of armed citizenship and how that influences “stand your ground” laws today, I kept coming across incidents that undermine the assumption that the greatest threat to women are strangers lurking in dark alleys. In fact, women often know their attackers: One third of women murdered in the United States are killed by a former or current male intimate partner.
And when women use a firearm to defend themselves against a male attacker whom they know, prosecutors sometimes determine that the same self-defense laws promoted as necessary to protect women for some reason don’t apply. In my research, I found many women — Pamela Smith, Marissa Alexander, Melissa Roberts, and Callie Adams, to name a few — who ended up in prison when they used a gun to protect themselves from abusive male partners. The cruel reality is that our legal system treats most female victims of domestic violence with suspicion, especially when they fight back.
The promise of women’s empowerment through guns is a seductive one. As she lobbied in Florida for the passage of the first “stand your ground” law, Marion Hammer, a former NRA president, recounted her harrowing story of escaping an assault and possible gang rape in a parking garage. Thanks to her quick thinking and .38-caliber revolver, Hammer scared away the carload of men who pursued her. This and similar stories, in which (usually white) women use pluck, determination, and firearms to fend off threatening strangers, have proved highly effective in persuading lawmakers to relax firearm restrictions while passing legislation allowing people greater legal immunity when they kill in self defense. Since 2005, “stand your ground” laws have passed in over half the states. Since 2014, each state offers eligible residents a path to carrying a concealed firearm and, as of January 1, 2017, at least 10 have adopted “constitutional carry,” allowing residents to carry firearms without licensing or training.
According to gun rights activists, the expansion of armed citizenship will make women safer from rape and domestic violence. As she promoted campus concealed carry, Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore asserted, “The sexual assaults that are occurring would go down once these sexual predators get a bullet in their head.” Such logic presumes that the greatest threat to college women are strangers — “sexual predators” lurking in bushes. Yet the vast majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by acquaintances, and many occur after drug and alcohol consumption, when the presence of a gun would likely cause more harm than good.
In a June 2016 column for Gun Owners of America, Erich Pratt recounted the story of Carol Bowne in New Jersey (a state that has relatively strict gun laws) who died at the hands of her abusive ex-boyfriend. Bowne had applied for a gun license, citing fear of her former partner as her reason for needing one, but hadn’t yet received it. According to Pratt, her death is the state’s fault: She “could still be alive today if arrogant officials had not denied her the right to protect herself.” He then praised Pamela Smith, the Kentucky woman who shot and killed her ex-husband when he attacked her. Yes, Pratt notes, Smith had a restraining order out against him, but she recognized that “a mere piece of paper would not be enough to keep them at bay.”
But Pratt ignored the fact that Smith wound up in prison. In prosecuting arguments, the attorney arguing against Smith’s claim of self defense said “she was still seeing this young man in spite of the fact that there was a protective order” and, on the night of the fatal shooting, “she had actually let him into the house.” It would appear that Smith’s continued relationship with her abuser, a common occurrence in domestic violence situations, disqualified her from the right to stand her ground.
The hypocritical logic of armed citizenship was exposed in 2012 when 25-year-old Whitlee Jones killed her abusive boyfriend with a knife. Although Jones was granted stand-your-ground immunity, the South Carolina state prosecutor, Culver Kidd, tried to reverse the decision, explaining that the intent of the law “was to provide law-abiding citizens greater protections from external threats in the form of intruders and attackers.” According to Kidd, the law was not intended to “reach into our homes and personal relationships.”
Under this logic, self-defense laws don’t apply to women who fight back against an abusive partner. The fact remains that intimate partner violence is the most significant cause of injury to women, and that on average, three or more women each day are killed by intimate partners or exes. Increasingly, guns are the weapons of choice for batterers.
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The laws also exacerbate racial inequities in the prosecution of homicide cases. According to John Roman of the Urban Institute, in stand-your-ground states, cases with a “white perpetrator and a black victim are 281 percent more likely to be ruled justified than cases with a white perpetrator and white victim.” Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, analyzed stand your ground laws and how they are unevenly applied depending on defendants’ genders, and found that such laws enhance the legal system’s already robust support for white masculine violence against strangers while curtailing self-defensive rights for all women and non-whites. Black women in particular are frequently excluded from the protective promises of armed citizenship.
Ultimately, this theory of self defense allows (some) women to stand their ground, but only against criminal strangers, not against those who statistically pose the greatest threat. The gun rights solution to gender-based violence rings hollow when it sanctifies lethal self-defense for the few, at the expense of the many.
Caroline Light is the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Harvard’s Program in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Her new book, Stand Your Ground: America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self Defense is out February 14, 2017.