For Victims Of Domestic Violence, Guns In The Home Increase Terror

Aug 22, 2017

Between Jan. 1, 2011 and the end of 2016 there were 420 gun deaths in Vermont. Most were suicides but more than half of the female homicide victims were killed by their boyfriends or husbands.

According to a 2003 study in the American Journal of Public Health, when guns are present in domestic violence situations, women are five times more likely to be killed.

Avaloy Lanning, Executive Director of the Rutland County Women’s Network and Shelter says firearms just ratchet up the danger.  

“That gun is always in the back of their mind,” says Lanning. “That gun is the thing that can put a stop to their life quicker than anything else their partner is doing.”

"That gun is the thing that can put a stop to their life quicker than anything else their partner is doing." — Avaloy Lanning, Rutland County Women's Network and Shelter

She goes on, “someone who is living in an abusive relationship where there are guns in the home, they have indicated to us on many occasions that the presence of guns in the home was the thing that kept them from coming forward sooner.”

WISE is a nonprofit that serves approximately 1,100 domestic violence victims annually in the Upper Valley. At their headquarters in Lebanon, New Hampshire, staff answer phones and provide survivor-centered advocacy. Assistant Director Abby Tassel says firearms are frequently part of the story.

“I remember one woman very specifically telling me that she got to work and she opened her purse and there was a bullet inside," Tassel says, adding that others described how their abuser would leave a bullet on the counter top. "You know, there is a clear message there,” she says.

A woman, I’ll call Mary, walks in. She pulls up her sleeve to show a jagged scar that puckers across her elbow. “My husband broke my arm,” she says matter-of-factly, “it was a compound fracture.”

In the 22 years they were married, Mary says she never called anyone for help and never went to the police.

“I knew better,” she says. “There was no leaving that man, absolutely not. I was just too afraid. I really thought that he would kill me whether it be by his hands or a gun.”

"There was no leaving that man. I was just too afraid. I really thought that he would kill me whether it be by his hands or a gun." — Mary, a long time victim of domestic abuse

“And he had a lot of guns,” she continues. “He stuck a loaded gun right in my mouth; pistol-whipped me with it. And it wasn’t just one time,” she adds shaking her head in disgust, “it was constant.”

She says she took one of his guns and aimed it at his face while he slept one night, wanting to kill him. But she says she couldn’t pull the trigger.

“When he woke up and saw me with his gun, he gave me the worst beating of my life.”

She says she’d still be with him, or dead, had he not been killed in a car crash in 2004.

Abby Tassel, Assistant Director of WISE, says it can be hard to understand not leaving such a horrific situation.

“But there’s a very real risk," Tassel says, "I mean we know that its dangerous to leave and that is when we see women killed so often.”

Women like Molly Helland, 23, of Windsor. She tried to escape her abuser, 27-year-old Jason Kendall. 

According to police reports, after she moved out of his apartment, Kendall pointed a gun at her head and threatened to kill her and himself.

Helland’s father told police because of that, his daughter was planning to go to court and apply for a restraining order.

But she never had the chance. Kendall took his Remington bolt-action rifle, hid in some bushes and shot Helland twice as she left her parents house early on the morning of June 8, 2015.

She died at the scene.

Kendall fled to Kansas, where he shot himself two days later after a high-speed chase with police.

Avaloy Lanning of the Rutland County Women’s Network and Shelter, says it's all about power. "If someone, for instance, moves back home with their parents or they have successfully exited a violent relationship and are on their own, the abuser at the point has lost. And losing, for someone who is all about control, is not acceptable."

Between 2011 and 2016, five women in Vermont were shot by boyfriends or husbands in murder suicides.

Lanning believes stiffer penalties, more criminal prosecutions and more immediate protection for victims would help.

Federal law prohibits the purchase and possession of firearms and ammunition by people who have been convicted of domestic violence or are subject to certain domestic violence protective orders.

"During a domestic violence incident ... If there are firearms upstairs under the bed or even in a gun cabinet, there’s no legal ability for a police officer to confiscate those guns at this time." — Auburn Morningsong, Vermont Network Against Sexual And Domestic Abuse

But Auburn Watersong, of the Vermont Network Against Sexual and Domestic Abuse, says gaps in the federal law leave victims vulnerable.

“Currently there’s nothing that allows an officer to take a firearm from that household unless its been used in a crime or its been used to threaten a victim,” she explains. “So if there are firearms upstairs under the bed or even in a gun cabinet, there’s no legal ability for a police officer to confiscate those guns at this time.”

State lawmakers are currently considering a bill [H.422] that would change that.

If passed, law enforcement officers who arrest or cite a person for domestic assault could immediately remove any firearms discovered during a lawful search.

The weapons would have to be returned within five days unless a court rules otherwise.

But advocates say that five-day window could provide time for victims to escape, create a plan and get relief from abuse orders.

Critics argue that the due process of gun owners would be infringed upon and that the bill could create a slippery slope leading to further gun restrictions.

Rutland City Police Commander Matthew Prouty says he backs the law and thinks most law enforcement personnel do as well. But he worries about some of the details.

“Storage is a big deal,” says Prouty. “Having someone accountable for those weapons and being in charge of it. There’s no extra funding being allocated for that. What will very small police departments do?”

“What if you get into a house and it’s someone who’s been a collector and they have 100 guns?” asks Prouty. “That’s not unusual in Vermont, so you know, those are the things that need to be thought through.”

Eighteen other states have already enacted a similar law.

Back at WISE, Abby Tassel sits in the waiting room. She says she and other advocates hope lawmakers will approve the bill. "It’s important," she says pointing to a copy of the latest Valley News that sits on a nearby table. A front page story details the latest murder-suicide involving a husband shooting his wife.

VPR's Gunshots series explores the role of guns in life — and death — in Vermont through commentary, data and in depth reporting.