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Written by jen byers.

At the end of 2020, I was scared. My job, as a journalist, sent me to deep rural areas in swing states — right-wing militia territory. I could feel the anger in the air, and it worried me. I figured I should buy a bulletproof vest to protect myself. I found a leftist gun and gear store and reached out to the owner. We’ll call him Akai, which is not his real name. He talked kindly to me, which is rare in a tactical space. I assumed that meant there was a difference with him — that maybe, his politics of being openly a Marxist gun dealer, might translate into a wiser and more compassionate ethos around weapons, safety and protection. But, dang. Was I wrong. At least about him.

After meeting me, the gun store owner began to flirt intensely through his company Instagram account. He told me I was beautiful, a genius and perfect. It was flattering to be noticed by someone with so much power, so I opened up to him. I told him about my journalism and said I was a survivor of domestic violence. He promised he’d keep me safe and would never hurt me. I believed him. I began to fall in love.

He asked me to visit him, and he made comments about wanting to marry me. It felt fast, but the comfort he offered, presenting himself as a strong and brave protector of the people… was soothing to my rabbit heart. So, I flew across the country for a date.

When I met him in person, Akai bought me dinner, and we talked about everything. I told him how much I liked him, and this man blushed a deep red, like crimson. He looked at me for a long time. Then at the ground. Silence hung. I apologised, embarrassed. I didn’t want to offend him or be hurtful or —  

“No,” he said. “I have something I need to tell you.”
He looked at me. He said. “I hit people.”
“What?” I said, receding into myself. “ girls?” I asked.
He nodded. “Yeah. Like girls. Like a lot.”
He looked down. His confession felt like a threat.
“And I’ve already had thoughts of hurting you.”
“What?” I said. “B-b-but that’s my biggest fear. Being killed by someone I love.”

I stood, frozen. I felt seven years old. I felt four feet tall. The edges of my vision went blurry. This man owns a gun store and like 25 guns, I thought. I did not know what to do.

See, it’s simple: guns exacerbate existing power dynamics. Abuse is when one person takes power over another, by violence and cruelty. Abusers can use the possession of firearms as a way to let you know that if you step out of line, it would be very, very easy for them to kill you. Firearms can become the extension of a person — and if the person wielding them is abusive, firearms become an extension, an amplification of abuse. Abusers and guns are a match made in hell, really. Domestic abusers should not own gun stores. Hell, they shouldn’t even own guns.

Abusers can use the possession of firearms as a way to let you know that if you step out of line, it would be very, very easy for them to kill you.

Statistically speaking,  almost 70% of all mass shootings are perpetrated by domestic abusers or begin with an act of domestic violence. At least  40% of police  families experience domestic violence, and that violence often coincides with police brutality on the street. Abusers who have access to guns are  5x more likely  to kill their partners, and every month, at least  70 women are shot and killed  by abusive partners. About 80% of intimate partner  homicides are committed by using a gun. As if that isn’t bad enough, the penalties for these murders tend to be low for abusers. It’s people defending  themselves from abuse who get much larger prison sentences.

Men who kill their partners get an average of 2-6 years behind bars, while women who kill their partners (majority in self-defence) get on average 15 years.

So, in many ways, abuse and guns are a particularly  horrible recipe for women and femmes. If there’s a gun in an abusive relationship, we’re way more likely to get killed. But also, if we use that gun to fight back  against an abusive relationship, we’ll be in jail for a very long time. Stand your ground doesn’t apply to intrusions on bodily autonomy, apparently.

Statistically, the punishment for fighting back is worse for Black women, who are less likely to be viewed as victims  of violence. They’re more likely to receive life sentences without parole  for self-defence, even though they are 3x more at risk of being killed  by an intimate partner than women of other races. This lose-lose situation is a core tenant of both white supremacy and patriarchal oppression, which almost offers men a monopoly on violence — especially if those men are white, wealthy or in positions of power.

If we want to hit four birds with one stone – demilitarise a significant amount of police, curb mass shootings, protect survivors of abuse from jail time and also prevent deadly intimate partner violence –  we could begin to pour effort into one serious thing: disarming domestic abusers.

Stand your ground doesn’t apply to intrusions on bodily autonomy, apparently.

I’ll explain how we’ve tried to do that with Akai. There’s not a society-wide model for handling abusers without engaging law enforcement, yet. Many survivors believe that engaging law enforcement puts us in even more danger. I hated knowing he hit girls, owned a gun store and wanted to hurt me, too. I tried to send him some resources. I did try to move on. But, I couldn’t.

It felt irresponsible to hold this information to myself, knowing the statistics, the outcomes, the potential danger he posed to his city. So, I decided to tell people about him, and I asked for help. I connected with organisers local to his area, and I shared my story. We wrote a community warning statement. They passed it around town and corroborated it with more stories. When this went public, Akai retaliated… a lot. He conceded that he was a violent abuser, but claimed his violent abuse was in “the past.” He claimed I was just “crazy” and “bitter,” insulting me with typical sexist tropes. He and a crew of apologists attempted to deflect the conversation about basic community safety to instead attack me. I’ve weathered it, somehow, and their public attacks have only made more people understand what a danger he, his crew and their mindset poses. More people are invested, now, in organising to disarm the domestic abuser.

While my battle against the gun store abuser is ongoing, my hope is that others will take abuse seriously as a major indicator of a social health and safety. It’s my belief that, though analysing abusive dynamics and piloting effective solutions to them, we can address many  problems of mass violence. Not just interpersonal dehumanisation, but mass shootings, police violence and  the criminalization of survivors.

Violence in the home is an indicator for violence outside the home. Abuse is not just “private” or “personal business,” it is a show of character and willingness to destroy — abusers, often, will not stop with hurting only their loved ones. They just usually hurt their loved ones  first.

About the Author

jen byers is a conflict reporter and visual journalist.
they are currently at usc annenberg as an investigative journalism fellow, through the selden ring foundation. their work has appeared in aljazeera, the guardian, nowthis earth and showtime.

Follow on IG: @cl.ou.dy |