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Violence on the Home Front

You're more likely to be killed by someone you know than by a stranger, and you'll probably be at home when it happens.

| Thu Apr. 25, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

In the wake of the Boston bombings and Newtown massacre, visions of unfathomable crazy mass killers and armed strangers in the night have colonized the American mind. But the danger out there is both more mundane and more terrible: You're more likely to be hurt or killed by someone you know or love. And you'll probably be at home when it happens.

Between 2005 and 2010, 60 percent of all violent injuries in this country were inflicted by loved ones or acquaintances. And 60 percent of the time those victimizations happened in the home. In 2011, 79 percent of murders reported to the FBI (in which the victim-offender relationship was known) were committed by friends, loved ones, or acquaintances. And in 2009, most of the homicides for which the FBI has location data were committed in the home. Of the 3.5 million assaults and murders against family members between 1998 and 2002 (the last time such a study was done), almost half were crimes against spouses. Eleven percent were against children. But the majority of violent deaths are self-imposed. Suicide is the leading cause of violent death in the United States, and most of those self-killings happen at home.

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Violence Against Women

Vanette has plastic, rose-tinted glasses on and cowrie shells weaved into her braids. Her nails are long and thick and painted purple-brown. She has ample gaps in her teeth, and she's sitting at the communal dining table at a "transitional home" in Washington, DC, telling me about the time her boyfriend broke her knee.

Vanette doesn't really think of that as domestic violence, though. "When I think of physical violence, I think of punchin' and smackin'," she says. The fat silver chain bracelets on her wrists jangle against the table as she talks. Besides, she says, she was the one who started the fight. Her boyfriend had polyps in his lungs and was supposed to carry around an oxygen tank, flush his lungs twice a week with a machine, and not smoke. One night in 2010, when Vanette got home, there he was, smoking weed in the living room with friends. "I was like, 'Yeah, well, whatever, you're gonna kill yourself anyway.'" And then he shoved her over the back of the couch.

Domestic violence is the No. 1 cause of injury to women. The incidents add up to more than all the rapes, muggings, and car accidents women experience each year. One out of every four women in the United States will be physically injured by a lover in her lifetime. That translates into a woman being assaulted every nine seconds in America. Immigrant women are beaten at higher rates than US citizens, and African American women are subjected to the most severe forms of violence. Not surprisingly, a shaky economy just makes these numbers worse.

And then there are the rapes. Over a lifetime, 1 out of every 6 American women is raped. For Native Americans, that number is 1 in 3. For Native Alaskans, it can be up to 12 times the national rate.

And don't forget the killings. Sixty-four percent of the women killed every year are murdered by family members or lovers. There are more than 1,000 homicides of that kind annually, or approximately three a day. If there's a gun in a home where domestic abuse is a common thing, a woman is eight times more likely to be killed.

Faced with this grim pile of data, the American home begins to look less like a castle and more like a slaughterhouse.

At the same time, these numbers actually represent a vast improvement in domestic violence rates compared with a decade and a half ago. Since 1994, the rate of violence against women in the home is down 64 percent.

That percentage isn't quite as dramatic as it looks, because it coincides with a parallel decline in overall violence during the same period, and excludes the homeless, up to 40 percent of whom report going to the streets or someone's couch because of violence in the home. Still, the drop is significant and is likely due to, among other things, a public coming to terms with the reality of domestic violence, relatively recent federal laws meant to protect victims in the home, and the training of police and prosecutors to treat such violence as a crime, not a private affair.

For much of American history, the legal system didn't recognize most domestic violence, or date rape, or acquaintance rape, or marital rape as crimes. For a century, American men had the explicit right to beat their wives. They lost that right by the late 1870s, but long after that, the police would often respond to reports of wife-beatings by telling the husband to "walk around the block" and cool off. Public aversion to acknowledging violence in the home was so intense for so long that the anti-animal-cruelty movement preceded the anti-domestic-violence movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Even today, a residual urge to respect the supposed sanctity of the home and marriage helps shield men from laws now on the books.

In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). It was a landmark in bringing domestic violence out of the house and into the public space. Among other things, it provided money for the legal representation of victims of domestic violence, and for police training on the subject, and it helped enforce judicial restraining orders. The law also funded states to adopt mandatory arrest policies, which require that police arrest suspects in cases in which there is probable cause to believe domestic violence has taken place. Such laws now exist in 22 states and the District of Columbia.

Nationwide, however, arrest rates for domestic violence remain low. Only about half of reported domestic violence incidents result in arrest.

Even when states do have mandatory arrest laws, they don't always play out so well. If an arrest results in the elimination of the breadwinner in a household, it can leave an already battered woman broke as well. And the threat of certain punishment for a husband or boyfriend can actually make women reluctant to report abuse, which means they remain in violent homes. Immigrant and minority victims are even less inclined to call 911, since they have a stronger distrust of the police. Which means that sometimes mandatory arrest laws can backfire, resulting in fewer arrests, continued violence, and more deaths. A 2007 Harvard study found that the murder rate among domestic partners was 60 percent greater in states with mandatory arrest laws.

Once Vanette had landed on the floor behind the couch with one leg crumpled under her, it was her boyfriend who called 911. He was scared to death. When the ambulance came and the EMTs questioned her, she claimed it had been an accident. (Washington, DC, has a mandatory arrest law). They kept her in the hospital for two days. And then she was on a cane. And out of a job. And shuttling between homeless shelters for months because her girlfriends told her she had to get out of that house.

Violence Against Children

Deon, who is now 27, doesn't cry. Ever. And he doesn't get angry. His eyes are wide apart and impassive. He talks matter-of-factly about how, when he was 14, his mother tried to kill him. She said it was because he hadn't done his homework. One day too many. She lashed him with an extension cord and threw a glass at him. She screamed that she'd call the police and then came at him with a knife. But she missed—deliberately or accidentally—and stabbed the wall instead. He says she meant to hit that wall. His little niece, his two sisters, and his mother's boyfriend were all in the apartment. His older sister kept pleading, "Mummy, that's enough." But no one ever reported the incident.

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