An unaddressed epidemic of workplace gun violence

In a normal, reasonable world, the kind of things a woman needs to worry about on any given day at work might include the best way to approach a report, what she’s going to eat for lunch, how to develop a new project, or perhaps how to sponsor an up-and-coming colleague. In the United States, aside from the general garbage of misoygny and sexism that women have to deal with, women have to deal with another very specific form of gendered frustration, and danger: Gun violence. For women, homicide is a leading cause of workplace fatalities, which is absolutely absurd.

Conversations about gun violence in America tend to be extremely frustrating. The subject only comes up in response to terrible mass shootings, which are outliers in the overall pattern of who gets killed by guns, and who picks them up. Violence is also blamed on unusual circumstances, with people being accused of terrorism (brown) or mental illness (white). There’s a profound reluctance to engage with the fact that guns are normalised in US society, and that consequently, the kind of people who commit violence are also normalised, entirely ordinary and unremarkable, which makes their actions all the more chilling.

Intimate partner violence is a major contributor to the epidemic of gun violence in America, but it’s rarely referenced, instead hiding in the shadows as though this will magically make it go away. To admit that it’s a huge part of why guns are such a problem in America is, after all, to confront culpability and the reality that causes for violence lie much closer to home than people want to acknowledge. If we say that violence rooted in misogyny is a problem, and that a few simple steps would make it dramatically less likely that women would die by gun violence, we’d have to acknowledge that misogyny and toxic masculinity are rooted deeply in US culture, and require extensive corrective efforts to stamp out.

We also force people to talk about how their own actions contribute to this problem. When people normalise, joke about, make light of, or otherwise underestimate the power of misogyny, they’re also feeding it, creating a climate where it feels reasonable to tolerate it. After all, it’s just words. After all, she was just asking for it. It was a mistake, he didn’t mean to hurt her. It won’t escalate. High profile public figures do it, so why are we getting on his case about it? The entitlement and ownership of women’s bodies that are pervasive in media and pop culture fuel the men who murder their partners.

And the workplace is a surprisingly common setting for this violence — intimate partner violence is not a ‘domestic matter’ that takes place behind closed doors, but one that spills over into society at large. Nearly 20 percent of women who died in the workplace in 2014 were murdered by current or former partners, and this number is growing. Women are also much more likely to be injured than people of other genders when intimate partner violence spills into the workplace.

For people in abusive relationships, and those who have escaped them, the workplace is not necessarily a safe place to be. Narrowing the band of safe places is in fact a goal of abusers, who want to make people feel trapped and hopeless, giving them the sense that there is nowhere to run, and nothing they can do. Collectively, we have chosen to cultivate that lack of safety, that failure to find comfort in places that should be at best neutral zones, but preferably places where the needs of employees are affirmed and supported. People should not have to go to work wondering if they will be shot, while employers should not have to feel like they need to run a maximum security facility to protect their staff from armed individuals who very clearly should not have been allowed to have guns.

Yet this is the state of affairs we’ve cultivated by refusing to engage with the root causes of gun violence. I understand why people think it would be nice and convenient to blame the issue on the other, to suggest that most reasonable people can own guns and somehow resist the temptation to kill people with them. It allows people to take the path of least resistance, to decide that while they care, they don’t need to take any personal action, to pass meaningless legislation and resolutions to assuage a public sense of outrage without actually taking functional action.

But the fact is that ‘reasonable’ people who own guns absolutely kill people with them. Because misogyny is treated as a reasonable thing that ordinary people engage in, and violent relationships are broadly considered acceptable. It has proved extremely difficult to apply even a rudimentary mass standard like ‘hey, maybe people who have a history of domestic violence shouldn’t be allowed to buy guns.’ Because this, we hear, is too restrictive. Even though a gun in the house radically increases the risk of death for women in abusive relationships. But we wouldn’t want to punish responsible gun owners, right?

Image: Chanelle Case Borden, NCI Center for Cancer Training Fellow, National Institute of Health Image Gallery, Flickr