During my first semester of law school, I took my last exam with a purple scarf wrapped around my neck to cover up the fingerprints my boyfriend had left there when he had dragged me down the stairs of our South Philadelphia home, slammed me into our fish tank, shattering it, and then choked me.
The night he left the bruises, I sat awake on our living room couch, the sharpest kitchen knife we had in my hand, staring at the front door, waiting for him to come back. I remember my knees tucked to my chest. I remember shaking so hard I wondered if I’d even be able to use the knife.
After my final, I drove to a gun shop in Delaware. It was one of those rundown stores right off the highway with the words “Gun Shop” in large letters above the door. It seems that with guns and liquor, the names of the stores don’t matter. It’s enough marketing to just identify what’s inside.
It must have been obvious to the salesman, a man in his 60s with a white beard, that I didn’t know anything about guns. I told him I wanted one small enough to fit in my purse and one with stopping power. I didn’t want to have to shoot twice.
He told me he knew just the gun – someone had just brought it in a few minutes before I’d arrived and it wasn’t too expensive. He convinced me that the bullet size, .380 caliber, was ideal for self defense.
He paused before handing the gun to me, and said gently, “You’re in trouble, aren’t you?” I nodded. If I used words I knew I would begin crying.
He took my license, and said it would take about 5 minutes to run the background check. Maybe everybody is nervous during the background check, certain that their history of speeding tickets will disqualify them, or maybe it was just me. Maybe my stomach was churning because I was afraid of buying a gun, of having to use it. Or maybe I was scared that the background check would show the two weeks I’d spent in a psychiatric ward only two years before.
I’m not sure what the result of the check was – whether it showed my psychiatric history but it somehow didn’t matter, or whether the result just said something like “approved.” But I walked out of the store with a gun and a box of ammunition.
While I felt, more than anything, that I needed a gun and while I carried it with me everywhere I went for the next six months, I still don’t understand how I was able to buy one. Eighteen months earlier, I wasn't trusted with shoelaces or a pen – inherently innocuous items that could potentially be turned into weapons by a desperate person, and now I was being trusted with a gun – an inherently violent object with no other possible purpose.
If a woman who spent weeks in a psychiatric ward after trying to kill herself could get a gun, who wouldn’t be able to?
And it might seem like a woman who bought a gun for self-defense is exactly the woman who would be opposed to stricter gun control laws, I’m not. Because I shouldn’t have had to buy a gun in the first place.
I should have gotten protection when I went to the police station, when the detectives took my statement, took pictures of my injuries. I should have gotten protection when I went to court and tried to get a restraining order, when I showed the judge pictures of my injuries and my hospital records. When I was told that I could not get an order of protection because my boyfriend had not said, specifically, “I’m going to kill you.”
I should have gotten protection when I called the district attorney’s domestic violence department multiple times asking for help, pleading to be heard by a prosecutor.
What I got, instead, was dropped off at my house by the detectives without them even searching the house first to make sure my boyfriend wasn’t inside. What I got, instead, was turned away. What I got, instead, was a gun.
And if a woman with a history of attempting to kill someone, even if it’s herself, and a woman who has been in a psychiatric hospital, and a woman who, it was clear to a stranger, was “in trouble,” can get a gun, then who can’t?