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Francine Garland Stark is the executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.
In conversations about gun safety, we regularly hear the experiences of domestic abuse survivors co-opted by those who oppose firearms regulations. They assert the idea that survivors need to have immediate access to guns for self-defense and cite that as a reason to resist any firearm safety laws, such as universal background checks and waiting periods to ensure that guns are not sold to people who have demonstrated they present a risk to themselves or others.
At the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, in our 45-plus years of working with victim-survivors in our state, we have heard a very different story about domestic abuse and firearms — one that supports these policy advancements.
And beyond the tangible body count of domestic violence homicide victims, every day there are people, overwhelmingly men, threatening their partners and family members with guns, hidden literally and figuratively behind closed doors.
Helpline advocates at Domestic Violence Resource Centers across our state hear from people every day who are afraid that the person they love will kill them. Their courage is extraordinary. They describe years of struggle: submitting to keep the peace, taking violence onto themselves to protect their children and managing an ever-shifting landscape of threats and declarations of love, apologies and promises of change.
Victim-survivors tell us their stories on the helpline, in shelter, in court and anywhere advocates are in our communities. Sometimes, they file for divorce without ever telling anyone what happened to them until long after they feel truly safe. Over decades, tens of thousands of survivors have shared the same overwhelming theme: I want the abuse and violence to stop — for me and for everyone — and I don’t want the person abusing me to be hurt. I just want them to stop hurting me and the children. They seek a way to end the threat, a way that does not result in the death of the person threatening them.
Justice is what survivors say they want, and shooting people is not justice.
Advocates in Maine recognize that when a victim obtains a firearm, it is more likely to be used against them than be useful in self-defense. Some survivors arm themselves when they feel utterly without alternatives, but our legal system exacts a heavy price from women, especially women of color, who use guns to defend themselves against abusive partners. Time and again, we have seen that “standing your ground” does not actually work out well for survivors of abuse.
Safety and justice for survivors requires a community united around the belief that no one has the right to place their partners and children in fear, and that holds those who act abusively accountable for their behavior rather than blaming those they harm for being there. It requires ensuring survivors have universal access to the supports needed to be free from violence, not unfettered access to firearms.
The work to improve Maine’s gun safety laws and policies is ongoing, both in the Legislature and across state agencies and commissions. However, meaningful change depends on all of us. We can start by making sure that any firearms we own are securely locked up, safe from our children and our loved ones who may be in crisis.
Perhaps we would best protect our rights to own firearms by centering the value and safety of each other through concern, connection and curiosity rather than denial, distance and defensiveness — by recognizing that creating justice and safety for all of us, including victim-survivors, is a community responsibility, not an individual one.