In my overly-ambitious nature, my enthusiasm to write about violence against women perhaps got the better of me for this topic – one of several for the ’16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence’ Campaign. While I know a lot about domestic violence, I’ve come to realize in my research that I know very little of the small arms trade. I imagine that we all need to know more about this subject, myself included. So I proceed.

Here’s what I know: domestic violence shatters the lives of millions of women worldwide. Silent and secret, this terrorism in the home occurs everywhere around the clock. Guns have a particular role in this cycle. They have the power to perpetrate terrorism whether directly in the hand of the aggressor, or simply left out on a counter, a table or chair. Many of the stories I’ve heard from survivors include the flaunting or strategic placement of a handgun, including the covert threat implied by the cleaning of a handgun. The message they carry is inherent: harm and death. The Domestic Violence Crime Watch website provides a sobering and long list of fatal domestic violence homicides and suicides around the nation. Most were committed with a gun.

Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

The United States’ founding fathers explicitly chose to include an amendment in our constitution allowing citizens to own fire arms. Over the last century this has become a contentious part of a national debate around gun laws. Pro-NRA folks will always maintain a right to possess weapons, to “defend ourselves” and argue that “it’s the person, not the gun, who kills.” Indeed it is the person, yet it is also the availability and access to guns that significantly increases the likelihood of being killed. We in the US have easy access whether legitimate (going through the background check) or on the black market. Guns are around and accessible to anyone with the intent to get one.

Guns do not make us safer. Guns frequently do not defend us. Due to the nature of domestic violence in which a person’s sense of self contracts over time, hammered by tactics that induce fear, even if a survivor had access to a gun, I’m not sure they would choose to use it in self-defense. The few women who do can end up in jail, often unjustly sentenced to a life in prison. Nearly 80% of women in prison are survivors of domestic violence.

More guns are not the solution to violence. A few months ago I attended a screening of “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo”, an arresting documentary on the rampant and systematic sexual violence in Eastern Congo. Rape is intensified and facilitated by the use of guns not only with the intent to inflict fear, but, horrifically, as instruments used to rape. In the Q&A after the film, a group of NRA-adherents proselytized that we should help arm “those women”; if they had access to guns they could better protect themselves. This narrow perspective ignores the complexity of the situation and assumes, ignorantly, that the women would be safer having AK-47s at easy reach when in fact it would aggravate the militias perpetrating such violence and result in more death and destruction. Not to mention the added psychological trauma from the act of killing.

The Greatest Silence

And here’s what I didn’t know: The United States is the largest dealer of arms in the world. We sold 170 billion US dollars of arms from 2003-2010. The nation coming in second place with big sales is Russia at 81 billion US dollars – nearly half of our profit. The supplier countries are selling – and profiting – from trade with “…nations in the developing world — where most of the potential for the outbreak of regional military conflicts currently exists.” (Source: Richard F. Grimmett, CRS Report for Congress; Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2003-2010, September 22, 2011) Inevitably the arms deals with the US not only fuel regional violence around the world, but those guns probably have a dual purpose in some cases: used in the homes of those who purchased them to perpetrate the cycle of domestic violence.

I can’t help but draw a parallel here. From a micro level where an individual perpetrator brandishes a gun to inflict fear on another, to the macro in which the United States leverages power and control over other nations, actively assisting in the perpetration of violence. How? Through economic trade deals and proliferation of weapons that financially benefit the US. We remain connected and responsible for violence that happens both here with our liberal gun laws as well as “over there” with our intent to profit from the violence of others. It is a strange world in which USAID and numerous other NGOs are working so hard here at home and abroad for democracy and human rights as the larger economic and military structure is simultaneously working to perpetuate conflict by providing the tools and training for death and destruction.

I also didn’t know that in the year 2000, “the U.S. controlled half of the developing world’s arms market…. This dominance of the global arms market is not something in which the American public or policy makers should take pride in. The U.S. routinely sells weapons to undemocratic regimes and gross human rights abusers.” (Arms Trade Insider—#53, Arms Trade Oversight Project, Council for a Livable World, August 20, 2001)

Or, that from 1998-2001, “the USA, the UK, and France earned more income from arms sales to developing countries than they gave in aid.” (Control Arms Campaign, October 2003)

Or, that the “War on Terror” has seen the U.S. selling weapons or training to almost 90% of the countries it has identified as harboring terrorists. (Arms Trade Insider—#53, Arms Trade Oversight Project, Council for a Livable World, August 20, 2001)

What these shocking facts tell us is that the arms trade is robust. I posit that there is a ‘trickle down’ effect: those weapons with the intent of arming military, militia, members of different factions inevitably also arm individuals who can easily step out of their role of group-member and become individual aggressors in their own homes. I saw this in post-conflict South Sudan where I worked with women. They shared with me that during the war one or more AK-47s could be found in most huts. The men had been armed with the purpose to fight the raiding Northerners but those guns could also be used for purposes of intimidation and control within their own compounds. In South Sudan domestic violence is extensive and accessibility of arms extant.

Former President and humanitarian Jimmy Carter stated a truth in 1976 that still pertains today, “We can’t have it both ways. We can’t be both the world’s leading champion of peace and the world’s leading supplier of arms.” We certainly cannot expect guns to stop playing a role in domestic violence either here in the US or abroad as long as they remain so very available. We can expect a slow shift in the culture as it pertains to violence, more progressive ways to safety plan and an increased awareness about the numerous intersections of small arms and DV. But with all aspects related to women’s rights and safety, we still have a lot of work to do.