A brutal murder in a small Louisiana town reignites debate about women, guns, and self-defense. Here’s the story the data tells.
By Jennifer Mascia
On the night of August 9, police responded to a domestic dispute at a home in the small Louisiana town of Geismar. In the backyard, they found the bludgeoned body of Monica Johnson. The 45-year-old held an active restraining order against her estranged husband, who police arrested the next morning and charged with murdering his wife with a baseball bat.
As the community processed the horrific crime, local law enforcement and pro-gun establishments offered a simple response: arm domestic violence victims to prevent more deaths. Appearing on a CBS affiliate two days after the murder, Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley urged women to get concealed-weapons permits.
“When you’re in a situation like this, shoot him in your backyard before he gets in your house,” Wiley said. “Drop him. Take the extremes necessary to live a life where you don’t have to worry about your kids and your life.”
Twenty-two miles north in Baton Rouge, Wade Duty, the owner of Precision Firearms in Baton Rouge, called the sheriff’s comments “motivational” and announced that he was offering free concealed-carry training to women with restraining orders against abusers. “If you find yourself in this situation, you need to have some options,” said Duty, an attorney and NRA-trained instructor. Wiley and Duty did not respond to a request for comment.
But now some local domestic violence prevention advocates are pushing back, arguing that adding a firearm can add new risks to an already volatile situation.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to eliminate domestic violence homicide, and we’re never going to be able to eliminate the need for women to defend themselves,” Beth Meeks, executive director of Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, tells The Trace. “But there’s an overwhelming pile of evidence that says that a woman who wields a gun against her abuser is much more likely to have her own weapon used against her.”
Christy Salters Martin is one of the more high-profile examples of what can go wrong: The professional boxer and licensed concealed carrier armed herself against her husband during a violent 2010 altercation at their home in Florida. Martin’s husband, also a concealed carrier, grabbed Martin’s pink Glock and shot her with it. Overall, the presence of a gun in domestic violence situations increases the risk of homicide five-fold, according to a 2003 study. An analysis of 2010 homicide data by the Violence Policy Center found that women in relationships are more likely to be murdered with a firearm than all other means combined.
Another survey, which gathered responses from more than 400 women in California battered women’s shelters in 2004, found that only 1.4 percent of domestic abuse victims had used a long gun in self defense against their abuser, and only 3.1 percent had used a handgun in self defense.
Meeks also warns that when women do use firearms to successfully defend themselves in domestic incidents, there can be unforeseen consequences. It’s what she calls the “Marissa Alexander situation.” Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison after firing what she argued was a warning shot to scare her abusive husband at their Florida home in 2012. She was released on house arrest after overturning the conviction on appeal, but had already served three years behind bars.
That same year, Tammy Romero was charged with second-degree murder after fatally shooting her live-in boyfriend after years of dysfunction and abuse. The Louisiana woman pled guilty to negligent homicide and filed a federal lawsuit against local police, arguing that officers actually caused Wirtz’s death because they did not do enough to protect her from him.
“None of these things are predictable,” Meeks says. “We could run what-if scenarios all day. But we need to be responsible about the information we give these women.”