Not long after Sophie*, now 28, moved into her boyfriend Sam’s new house in suburban Illinois, he brought home a gun. It was a pistol, small and black and heavy. “He was kind of excited,” she remembers. She didn’t understand why he wanted one — his parents didn’t own guns, that she knew of — but he seemed to be acting responsibly, getting a legal firearms permit, keeping it locked in a gun safe, and storing the bullets separately. And she trusted Sam; he was her high school sweetheart. So she tried to put it out of her mind.
Until he started taking the weapon out at night. It was always when Sam was drunk and they were bickering. Without a word, he’d head into the bedroom, open the safe, and reappear with the gun. Sometimes, he’d place it on the kitchen table; other times, he’d slowly load and unload it in front of her, methodically popping bullets in and out of the chamber. “There were never any verbal threats,” says Sophie. “He’d just … have it out.”
At first, she protested. “I’d be like, ‘Oh, God, put that away,’ and he would say, ‘What? Does this make you uncomfortable?’” The next day, Sam would be full of apologies and promises to never take the gun out again.
Over the next few months, he bought more guns, and the drunken intimidation intensified. He’d point an unloaded weapon at the ceiling and pull the trigger, a practice known as dry firing. Or he’d load one and point it at her or at himself. Sophie would inevitably end up doing whatever Sam wanted, just to get him to put the damn thing away. “It was almost like being held captive,” she says. “In a physical fight, I’d at least have a chance — I could poke him in the eye or knee him in the groin. But when there’s a gun involved, it’s not a level playing field.”
Sophie was too embarrassed to tell her parents. “My father always told me to dump a guy if he hit me or cheated on me,” she says. “But what if a guy points a gun at you every time he gets drunk? I didn’t know who to talk to about that.” And despite the creeping terror that started to consume Sophie, Sam never actually laid a hand on her.
Under Constant Threat
Although she didn’t know it at the time, there’s a name for what Sophie experienced: coercive control. Popularized in 2007 by the forensic social worker Evan Stark, PhD, the term refers to the sinister ways people nonviolently manipulate their intimate partners (physical assault often coexists with coercive control, but it doesn’t have to). They include constant belittling and criticism or enforcing strict guidelines for socializing. “The controlling partner dictates choices most of us take for granted, such as who we see, how we dress, and which websites we visit,” wrote Stark in 2017. “It’s not about hitting or hurting but about taking away women’s autonomy,” he added.
Abusive partners don’t need a gun to govern their victims, but a gun makes a ruthless tool of intimidation. A husband might keep one on the mantel in the living room, where he and his wife watch TV. A boyfriend might polish his weapon during arguments. While asking his partner where she’s been, a guy might casually remove his coat to reveal a pistol clipped to his belt. “This [phenomenon] is almost exclusively male on female,” says Susan B. Sorenson, PhD, executive director of the Ortner Center on Violence and Abuse in Relationships at the University of Pennsylvania. “When you have a gun, you can control someone without touching them, without even speaking a word.”
Indeed, a lethal weapon allows an abuser to easily establish a “regime of domination,” as Stark calls it — and in a country with an estimated 270 million firearms, countless women are at risk. One 2016 study found that some 4.5 million women have been coerced or bullied with a gun by an intimate partner. In a separate (as yet unpublished) survey, Tami Sullivan, PhD, the director of Family-Violence Research at Yale, found that 33 percent of women in the Greater New Haven, Connecticut, area who were victims of abuse had also been menaced with a firearm. “And that doesn’t count the implied stuff, like when he cleans the gun in front of them,” says Sullivan.
While experts recognize coercive control as a legitimate form of domestic abuse, the threat itself can be hard to describe to friends and family, let alone the police. There are no bruises or bullet wounds, and after constant manipulation, a victim may wonder if she’s seeing danger that’s not really there. Or she may become too terrified to act at all.
When Rachel, now 29, first started trying to break up with her boyfriend of two years in 2012, he told her he could easily get a gun. And he did. When she said she’d get a restraining order against him, he whipped out a 9-millimeter handgun, loaded it, and said, “A piece of paper never stopped a bullet.” Fearing for her life, Rachel didn’t move forward with the restraining order. A month later, after he tried to make her hold the gun — “I want you to hold this, so you know that it’s real and that it’s loaded,” he said — she fled to her parents’ house. While her boyfriend had been physically abusive in the past, “this was totally different — the worst part of everything,” she says. “Until then, I didn’t think he could actually kill me.”
A Loaded Issue
Both Sophie and Rachel confronted perhaps the most alarming part of coercive control by firearm: In many cases, it’s perfectly lawful. Stroking a legitimately obtained gun during an argument isn’t illegal. Loading or cleaning one nonchalantly while demanding a partner’s online passwords? Not against the law. Asking a woman to hold a pistol to see that it’s loaded? Also not a crime.
A firearm doesn’t have to go off to play a critical role in domestic violence.
Most American domestic violence laws are structured to deal with violent incidents — a punch landed, an actual pistol-whipping, a fired bullet. When it comes to long-term patterns of psychological violence, sufferers have less legal recourse. In many states, it is technically assault (a misdemeanor that carries little to no jail time) to actually point a gun at someone. But most victims are unaware of this or remain too ashamed or fearful to report incidents. And when they do, they find getting a domestic violence restraining order (DVRO) without proof of physical assault can be traumatic in itself, says Sorenson. “Based on what I know, it is rare for a DVRO to be issued based only on psychological abuse.” Meaning, until a domineering partner shoots his gun, it can be hard to get a restraining order… or to have his weapon taken away.
Sophie learned this the hard way. A few months after she broke up with Sam, he called her, drunk, and said he was going to kill himself. She got in her car. As soon as she pulled into his driveway, she remembers, “He was like, ‘Get out of the car!’ He was slurring his words and pointing a gun at me. He reached for my seat belt, unbuckled it.” He grabbed her and began interrogating her about men she’d been seen with. Then he fired his gun. Sophie, who was not injured, says she isn’t sure whether he even pointed it at her, “but I remember a bright light, falling to my knees,” she says. “I vomited in my mouth.” She managed to get back in her car and peel out of the driveway. Sam spent three days in jail, then because she declined to press charges, he got his guns back.
Still, Sophie could be considered lucky. In July, an Alabama man shot and killed his ex-wife, 41-year-old Debra Ann Rivera, less than three months after a judge denied her request for a permanent DVRO. She’d told police that he had threatened her with firearms and had been stalking her and her new husband. She was granted a temporary order, but not the permanent one that would have required her ex to give up his guns.
The Invisible Wounds
Even when coercive control doesn’t turn violent, it can leave lasting damage. Rachel has struggled with nightmares that involve a gun or other weapons, and she remains on anti-anxiety medication. “My startle response is very high,” she says. “If a coworker drops something or makes lots of noise that I don’t anticipate, it will make my heart race. I still have a lingering fear of a gun being used against me in a relationship.”
Elsa, 28, who had a gun pointed at her — but never actually fired — many times during a tumultuous relationship in her late teens, says it took her years to recover from the mental trauma and that she still has panic attacks. “When emotional abuse and controlling behaviors are your norm, you have to relearn autonomy,” she says. “For women to feel like they’re safe to make their own decisions again takes a really long time.”
For abusers bent on control, firearms are an effective tool.
“The health impact of firearms goes way beyond homicide,” confirms Sullivan. “The fear of a firearm threat — just the fear of the threat, not even the actual threat — is significantly associated with PTSD. It’s stronger even than the link between physical or sexual abuse and PTSD.” In a 2017 paper Sullivan coauthored, women who had been threatened with a gun — or feared that their partner would use one against them — had more severe psychological symptoms than women who had endured other types of abuse.
And feeling like they are alone, with no legal or emotional recourse, can only compound victims’ trauma. “When you have a black eye, you can show it to someone,” explains Sullivan. “With this kind of abuse, you have nothing to show.”
In some countries, coercive control is now its own crime. In 2010, France became the first nation to ban “psychological violence within marriage,” and in 2015, the United Kingdom made “coercive or controlling domestic abuse” punishable by up to five years in prison. Nothing like this is being considered stateside.
In the absence of laws, Sorenson says that education is key. Incorporating training on coercive control into existing law enforcement programs could help police identify and prosecute firearm threats. It may also make removing guns from abusers (and confiscating illegal ones) a more standard procedure. “Victims in domestic abuse cases need to be asked if they have ever been threatened with a firearm,” adds Sorenson, because that may help them get a DVRO. “We need to see what’s happening so that we can help prevent a death.”
Spreading the word about coercive control may also help sufferers, says Natalie Dolci, a domestic-violence victims’ advocate in the Seattle Police Department. “If someone feels their partner is becoming controlling, it’s critical that they stay connected to support, whether that’s a therapist, a trusted friend, or an advocate at a local community agency.” Validation and perspective from outside the controlling relationship is essential, she says. To that end, in 2016, the advocacy hashtag #MaybeHeDoesntHitYou took off on Twitter. People still use it to tweet examples of coercive control. “#MaybeHeDoesntHitYou,” wrote one woman this July, “but he points an unloaded gun close-range at your forehead because he wants to check if the laser works.”
Awareness campaigns such as this one could help evolve and broaden how we talk about gun violence. Because, as Sophie points out, “You don’t see these domestic situations in the news. It’s only, like, gun incidents in schools and churches. And I’m all for talking about those. But I didn’t even think I was part of the conversation.”
* Some names have been changed