The Myth: The Stranger Lurking in the Alley
Homicides against women are surrounded by an aura of mythology and sensationalism. These supposedly typical scenarios are familiar to us all: a woman is depicted alone and vulnerable, perhaps walking on a dark street or at home asleep. Her attacker, according to this archetype, is a depraved stranger who will rape, rob, and eventually kill her.
The gun industry is particularly enthusiastic in promulgating these images and stoking their attendant fears. After all, the firearms business has a unique stake in reinforcing women’s feelings of insecurity: fear sells guns. The gun lobby focuses on the threat of attack by a stranger to promote handguns as self-defense weapons for women. As a result, images of a woman armed with a handgun fending off an attacker abound in gun publications. (For examples, please pictures below.)
These images aim to persuade women that buying a gun will protect them from murderous strangers. Yet firearmsï¿½whether in the hands of men or womenï¿½are rarely used to kill criminals.1 While stranger attack occurs all too often, it is in fact the most unlikely homicide scenario a woman can expect to face.
Efforts by the gun lobby to equate female homicide with stranger attack not only obscure the reality of violence against women, but also promote the notion that safety is a purely personal obligation. In this view, rejecting this perceived obligation is tantamount to inviting victimization. As a result of such thinking, women who are attacked are often blamed for the violence committed against them.
The Reality: The Husband or Boyfriend with a Gun
When Men Murder Women is an annual report prepared by the Violence Policy Center detailing the reality of murders committed against women. The study analyzes the most recent Supplementary Homicide Report data submitted to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.2 The information used for this report is for the year 1998. Once again, it is the most recent data available. This is the first analysis of the 1998 data on female homicide victims to offer breakdowns of cases in the 15 states with the highest female victim/male offender homicide rates, and the first to rank the states by the rate of these female homicides.
This study examines only those instances involving one female homicide victim and one male offender. This is the exact scenarioï¿½the lone male attacker and the vulnerable womanï¿½that is used by the gun lobby to promote gun ownership among women.
In 1998, there were 1,932 females murdered by males in single victim/single offender incidents that were submitted to the FBI for its Supplementary Homicide Report.3 These highlights from the report, expanded upon in the following sections, dispel many of the myths propounded by the gun lobby:
- More than 12 times as many females were murdered by a male they knew (1,699 victims) than were killed by male strangers (138 victims).
- Sixty percent (1,016) of female homicide victims were wives or intimate acquaintances4 of their killers.
- There were 410 women shot and killed by either their husband or intimate acquaintance during the course of an argumentï¿½more than one woman a day.
- More female homicides were committed with firearms (54 percent) than with all other weapons combined. Of the homicides committed with firearms, 77 percent were committed with handguns.
- In 87 percent of all incidents where circumstance could be determined, homicides were not related to the commission of any other felony, such as rape or robbery.
The study also, for the first time, analyzes available information on the murders of black and Hispanic females. Not surprisingly, these homicides mirror the trends for women overall: most homicides against women are not committed by strangers, but by men known to the victims.
- According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Supplementary Homicide Report, in 1998 there were only 165 justifiable homicides (the justified killing of a felon during the commission of a felony) committed by private citizens using firearms. Of these, only 145 involved handguns. While firearms are at times used by private citizens to kill criminals or to stop crimes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the most common scenarios of gun use in America are suicide (17,424 in 1998), homicide (12,102 in 1998), or fatal unintentional injury (866 in 1998). The April 1994 Justice Department study Guns and Crime revealed that from 1987 to 1992, the annual average of all victims of violence who claimed to have used a firearm of any type (handgun, shotgun, or rifle) to defend themselves was only about one percent (62,200 instances). Another 20,300 claimed to have used a firearm to defend their property during a theft, household burglary, or motor vehicle theft. Also, it is not known whether the gun was successfully used to stop the particular crime. In comparison, Guns and Crimereported that offenders armed with handguns alone committed a record 930,700 violent crimes in 1992.
- The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program collects basic information on serious crimes from participating police agencies and records supplementary information about the circumstances of homicides in its unpublished Supplementary Homicide Report (SHR). Submitted monthly, supplementary data consists of: the age, sex, race, and ethnicity of both victims and offenders; the types of weapons used; the relationship of victims to offenders; and, the circumstances of the murders. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, supplementary data are provided on only a subset of homicide cases. Additionally, SHR data are updated throughout the year as homicide reports are forwarded by state UCR programs.
- In 1998 the states of Florida, Kansas, and Wisconsin did not submit any data to the FBI Supplementary Homicide Report. In addition, data from these states was not requested individually because the difference in collection techniques would cause a bias in the study results.
- Intimate acquaintance is defined as a wife, common-law wife, ex-wife, or girlfriend.