Wendy Howard had the misfortune of meeting her ex-boyfriend, Kelly Pitts, in 2002. For nearly two decades, Pitts physically and sexually abused her, once beating her with a baseball bat while she was pregnant with their child, Bayley. Four years after meeting him, he sexually assaulted one of her daughters, Miranda, who was 12 at the time, according to reporting from Truthout.
Howard told police, but the prosecutor in Kern County, California, declined to bring charges. In June 2019, Pitts molested Bayley, by then a teenager. Howard again tried seeking the help of police, who investigated her complaint but took no action.
On the afternoon of June 5, Pitts showed up at Howard’s house on an ATV. Howard confronted Pitts with a picture of him inappropriately touching Bayley, which incensed him. Pitts accelerated the ATV towards her, and ran over her foot. She shot three times, killing him. Kierra Whitney, Howard’s daughter-in-law, testified that Howard felt anxious about showing Pitts evidence of his abuse because he was always bragging about how many friends he had in the local police department.
After Pitts’s death, the prosecutor finally decided to bring charges—of murder, against Howard, for defending herself after years of abuse with no help from the police. In October 2022, a jury found Howard not guilty on charges of first- and second-degree murder, but hung—seven voted guilty and five voted not guilty—on the voluntary manslaughter charge. The prosecutor could still retry Howard; a judge will decide next month whether it’s able to do so.
Howard’s story isn’t a one-off tragedy. The legal system often criminalizes survivors of intimate partner violence who dare fight back against their abusers. At the same time, the Supreme Court’s decision in Bruen v. New York State Pistol & Rifle Association has thrown the landscape of gun regulation into disarray: With alarming frequency, rules that bar abusers from owning guns are bowing to Justice Clarence Thomas’s proclamation that firearms regulations are lawful only if they are “part of the historical tradition that delimits the outer bounds of the right to keep and bear arms.”
Since domestic violence laws were largely non-existent for most of this country’s history, judges are free to strike down gun regulations and point to Bruen for absolution. As a result, the same legal system that has long punished survivors of domestic violence is making it harder for states to stop perpetrators from getting guns—even perpetrators with protective orders against them. Earlier this month, a federal court in Kentucky dismissed criminal charges against Sherman Combs for lying about a restraining order that prohibited him buying a gun. “[E]ven assuming that Combs is not a law-abiding, responsible citizen, the Constitution presumptively protects his right to possess a firearm under the plain text of the Second Amendment,” the court wrote.
That same day, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals declared unconstitutional a provision of federal law also at issue in the Kentucky case. A Texas state court had granted Zackey Rahimi’s ex-girlfriend a restraining order after he allegedly assaulted her in 2020. The Fifth Circuit, however, wrote that while Rahimi is “hardly a model citizen,” he “is nonetheless part of the political community entitled to the Second Amendment’s guarantees, all other things equal.”
These decisions and the stories of people like Howard reflect who wins and who loses in the aftermath of Bruen: Women are disproportionately likely to suffer abuse from an intimate partner—and to get punished for it. Every day, four women die from intimate partner violence, according to a 2022 report. Those who defend themselves against their abusers often face criminal charges for doing so: In 2005, the New York Department of Correctional Services found that, among women convicted of killing someone close to them, over two-thirds had been abused by that person. Nationwide, over 60 percent of incarcerated women are victims of physical or sexual abuse, according to the ACLU. The pattern is so pronounced that researchers have coined a term for it: the “abuse-to-prison pipeline.”
Gun violence and intimate partner abuse are inseparable from one another. Every month, an average of 70 women are shot and killed by their partners, according to Everytown. More than 4.5 million women report that a partner has threatened them with a gun. The likelihood of homicide resulting from domestic violence increases by 500 percent when the abuser owns a gun, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. And restraining orders were imperfect tools for stopping domestic violence even before Bruen: A study in the Journal of American Preventative Medicine found that only 20 percent of women who experience domestic violence actually get one. The Supreme Court’s choice to make it easier for abusers to obtain guns will inevitably lead to more preventable deaths.
The legal system is supposed to help survivors of domestic violence. Instead, it criminalizes and re-traumatizes them. In the aftermath of Bruen, the already-meager legal protections available to survivors are on the verge of becoming useless.