‘I was in constant fear’: Domestic abuse survivor speaks out to urge action to address gun violence

Originally published by The 19th

For Giovanna Rodriguez, keeping her family together was central to her being. The 46-year-old mother of two said it was something that had been instilled in her since she was a child.

“Speaking as a woman of color, at a very early age, we are kind of groomed to be submissive,” Rodriguez said. “Keeping families together at all costs no matter what’s going on … I thought I was doing the right thing. I thought that that was normal behavior.”

She now asks, “At what cost?”

Rodriguez shared her story with The 19th in honor of National Gun Violence Survivors Week, hoping her story reaches both lawmakers and those who have struggled behind closed doors.

Early in her marriage, she said, she never would have thought things could escalate to the point that they did. Rodriguez said her ex-husband would have verbal outbursts, banging on their wall and even following Rodriguez to work to ensure that she was not interacting with men co-workers. He tracked her every move, she said, even checking her internet activity in case she was trying to leave him.

But it was five months into the relationship when a gun became a “centerpiece” that Rodriguez said she began to fear for her life. She said her ex had a collection of guns. But she remembers that he began keeping one in visible places around the house at all times, usually replacing flowers on the living room table. Rodriguez said the presence of the gun was constantly used as a way to “intimidate.” At times, she said, the gun was pointed directly at Rodriguez.

“I was in constant fear, not only for my life, but for my children’s lives … having a gun to my head simply because his meal wasn’t warm enough, or his uniform wasn’t the way that he wanted it,” Rodriguez said.

Every month, an average of 53 women are shot and killed by an intimate partner, according to 2019 reports by the FBI. If a domestic abuser has access to a gun, it is five times more likely a woman will die at the abuser’s hands.

Women of color — specifically Black, Native American, Alaskan Native and Latinas — are victims of domestic abuse at the highest rates.  This stems from a decrease in trust with the criminal justice system and higher poverty rates that lead to less access to protective services like schooling, counseling and health care. These compounded factors make women of color most vulnerable to domestic abuse, which often leads to an increase in domestic gun violence, said Ruhi Bengali, the associate research director at gun violence prevention organization Everytown. While there is limited research, studies suggest lesbian women, bisexual women and men, and transgender people also report disproportionate rates of domestic violence.

In a study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation from November 19 to December 17, passing a law that prevents people who have committed domestic violence from having a gun is a top priority for 56 percent of women. (More Democratic, independent and non-affiliated women believe this is a top priority compared with Republican women.) It is also a top priority for the LGBTQ+ community, according to Alina Salganicoff, a researcher on the study and senior vice president and director of women’s health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. In an unpublished part of the survey, 61 percent of LGBTQ+ men believe passing this law is a top priority, compared with 38 percent of straight men.

“[Passing this law] rose to the top as one of the priorities where there is significant agreement,” said Salganicoff, who introduced this policy question into her survey for the first time this year. “This is an issue where we’re seeing broad support and a lot of concern to protect victims of domestic violence,” said Salganicoff.”

This survey comes as the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 is up for reauthorization.

In 2019, a bipartisan coalition in the House of Representatives passed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which aims to protect survivors and victims of violence and includes “prohibiting stalkers and individuals subject to court order from possessing a firearm.” This would address boyfriend and stalker loopholes, in which gun ownership restrictions applied only if one was legally bound to their partner by marriage or by a child. In 2019, every Senate Democrat signed on to the Senate version of the House-passed bill, but then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not bring the bill to the floor.

President Joe Biden — who created the first-ever White House adviser on violence against women during the Obama administration — wrote in his policy plans that protecting those most vulnerable from violence remains a top priority. “Joe Biden will make enacting the VAWA reauthorization one of his top first 100 day priorities,” according to his policy plans. “But, there is still more work to do. Now is no time to turn back, or even to simply sit still,” the statement continued.

Rodriguez left her husband in 2011 after a roughly five-year relationship. She notified police of domestic violence on multiple occasions, and they came over to her house several times before she left but nothing was done, she said. At one point, she said her husband was arrested but never convicted. Rodriguez also requested a protective order against him. She was granted the order, but he still got to keep his weapons, she said.

Rodriguez now lives alone with her two sons. She works to address gun violence in domestic partnerships in Rhode Island and speaks out to reach other survivors, in hopes of mending the alienation and fear that come up with experiencing domestic abuse and gun violence, she said.

“It’s so important that survivors tell their stories, that we lift their voices,” said Rodriguez. “It’s so important for our lawmakers on not only a state level but a federal level to think about the importance of protecting women and families with disarming domestic abusers.”