Content warning: the following op-ed contains descriptions of domestic abuse.
I was only 13 when we started dating, going into my freshman year in high school. I remember feeling grown up, but looking back, I was really just a kid.
We started seeing each other over the summer, and for a few months, our relationship was good — great, even. But by the end of freshman year, something had changed. Things turned violent.
The violence escalated over the next two years, but firearms were always a part of our relationship. He kept a gun tucked into his waistband at all times — a constant, silent reminder of the control he had over my life. I was afraid of him and of being with him — but for a long time, I was more afraid of being without him. He made me believe that I would be nothing on my own. That fear froze me.
His threats became more and more explicit, until one day, he held a gun to my head and told me that he could pull the trigger at any moment. It wasn’t the first time he’d said as much. But this time felt different. I knew that if I didn’t get out then, I could die. I had to leave.
I was lucky to escape, but the fear didn’t end when the relationship did. The pain and trauma of the abuse stayed with me. It’s been more than three years now, and I’m still afraid that at any moment, he’ll show up on my doorstep. I’m terrified that he’ll make good on all of those threats and that I’ll become another statistic.
Around the country, there are so many women trapped in abusive relationships like mine was. And when there’s a firearm in the equation, that violence can turn even more deadly. Every month, 70 women are shot and killed by an intimate partner, and approximately 4.5 million women have reported being threatened with a gun by an intimate partner. The ripple effects of that violence go far beyond the immediate relationship, leaving physical and emotional scars on survivors, families, and entire communities.
But even though domestic violence and gun violence in the United States are closely intertwined and affect so many people, there is still a paralyzing stigma around both issues. Countless individuals experiencing domestic violence don’t ask for help because they believe they won’t get it. Or they don’t share their stories because they worry people will doubt their validity or scrutinize the details. Personally, it took me a long time to recognize and acknowledge that I am a gun-violence and domestic-violence survivor and to open up about what happened to me. This stigma compounds the trauma of the abuse itself, silencing survivors and creating cycles of hurt and damage.
In 2019, I decided to break that cycle for myself. I wanted to do more, to be a force for change. I got involved in the movement for gun safety, because for too long, young people like me have been forced to live with the trauma and fear of gun violence, whether it be in our relationships, our homes, our schools, or our communities. I joined Students Demand Action and the Everytown Survivor Network, and through my advocacy, I found a group of student survivors who understood my experiences and my pain, who supported me and cheered me on as I started to share my story publicly. Being a part of this ever-growing movement has allowed my voice to be heard from Iowa all the way to Washington DC.
This summer, along with Students Demand Action, fellow survivors, and other gun-safety advocates, I helped pass the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA), which felt like the first meaningful federal action on gun safety in my lifetime and was the first to become law in over 25 years. The BSCA includes a provision to address the dating-partner loophole, which will help ensure that people who have recently been convicted of abusing their dating partners can’t get their hands on a gun. While some might say this bill doesn’t do enough, I know firsthand the years of hard work and advocacy it took to create this monumental change, and I know this can help save countless lives.
When I heard that it was signed into law in late June, I couldn’t help but break down. For the past three years, I had taken new routes home from work, obsessively checked the cameras in my home, and dealt with the trauma of always having to watch my back. For the first time since then, I felt safe, and I knew other survivors would feel the same. I felt like I could breathe again.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a time to remember and honor victims and survivors of domestic violence. It’s also an opportunity to raise awareness of what domestic violence is, how to recognize it, and what can be done to prevent it.
And while I’m grateful to have been supported on my journey to sharing my story, there are countless others who can’t say the same. So this month, I’m sharing my story in hopes that I can help empower others who may be trapped in abusive relationships to seek help. I am sharing my story to celebrate the progress we’ve seen at the federal level to help disarm domestic abusers. And I’m sharing my story to acknowledge that the fight is far from over. There is still so much more that needs to be done to help protect survivors of domestic violence and gun violence, including additional steps to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers and increasing access to services and trained advocates.
There are still moments when I find myself slipping back into that familiar place of fear, but I don’t let it swallow me anymore. I fight. I won’t stop until we can all live free from the fear of guns in the hands of domestic abusers.
Chloe Gayer is a first-year student at Drake University and a member of the Students Demand Action National Advisory Board. She is also a gun-violence survivor and a Survivor Fellow with the Everytown Survivor Network.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, available 24/7, for confidential assistance from a trained advocate. You can also find more resources on legal assistance in English and Spanish at WomensLaw.org.