When I was growing up, domestic violence was often considered a private matter, kept in the shadows and behind closed doors. First responders, from law enforcement to health-care providers, were not adequately trained to intervene. Hotlines and shelters did not exist. All too frequently, victims' complaints were ignored, and if the attackers owned guns, the results could be fatal.
Though we're talking more openly about abuse today than we did back then, it still happens far too often: studies show that about one in four women has been the victim of domestic violence. And if an abusive husband, boyfriend, or ex has access to a gun at home, a woman is much more likely to be murdered with it than she would be if no gun were present.
During the past seven years, I've spoken with people from across the country about ways to confront the issue of gun violence in all its forms. The vast majority of Americans want Congress to pass legislation to help keep people safe. They reject the misguided belief that it's pointless to try to address the problem — that people seeking to commit a crime with a gun will always find a way to obtain one. We know that's wrong. We know that simply running background checks has prevented more than two million illegal purchases since the system became operational in 1998.
There's another reality to gun violence in our country as well. Every year, countless Americans are killed not by strangers who are criminals, but just because a gun is present in an already volatile situation. Simple disagreements may escalate to shootings and death. And hundreds of women in abusive relationships are murdered every year with guns. Women who are victims of intimate-partner violence are more likely to be murdered with a firearm than all other means combined.
We can't accept this as normal in this country. That's why President Obama and so many people have called on Congress to act. Among other issues, Congress needs to act to ensure victims of domestic violence are safe from gun violence. The law prohibits many people who are subject to a restraining order, or have been convicted of a domestic-violence offense, from buying a gun. But there are also gaps in the law — gaps that mean not all of the perpetrators of abuse are prevented from gun purchases.
Of course, stronger laws can save lives — a 2014 study showed that states with universal background checks have 46 percent fewer intimate-partner gun homicides. Unfortunately, the gun lobby has been so successful at preventing open and informed discussions about gun violence that Congress has made it harder to conduct even basic public-health research on the impact of guns, let alone take further steps to protect victims and survivors of domestic violence.
Thankfully, over the past generation, an important cultural change has happened. Finally, Americans are seeing domestic violence as the public-safety problem that it is and not as a private matter. With that change comes an opportunity to raise our voices to keep guns away from dangerous people and situations.
When I advocate for change, one of the stories I think of the most is of a woman named Johanna, whom I had the fortune to meet four years ago. We brought Johanna to the White House to honor her as a "Champion of Change" because of the work she's done to end domestic violence. As Johanna told me, she used to be in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. Like many victims of abuse, she explained that she often blamed herself, believing if she just "tried harder," the violence would stop. It took two years for her to realize that wasn't the case and build the courage to leave the relationship. Yet after she left, her ex found her and raped her at knife-point. And two weeks later — after she reported him — he found her and shot her in the face with a sawed-off shotgun.