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Combatting Domestic Abuse in South Carolina

South Carolina’s women are being killed. In the past 10 years, more than 300 women have died at the hands of men — that’s one woman every 12 days. South Carolina posted a murder rate for women that was more than double the national rate, and statistics show that this problem cuts across racial, ethnic, and economic lines. For more than 15 years, South Carolina has been among the top ten states in the highest rates of women killed by men. The state has been in first place three times, including this past year.

There are many issues that perpetuate this cycle of abuse: South Carolina is “awash in guns,” has ineffective laws and bail practices, and does not have enough shelters for battered women. Of the state legislature’s 170 seats, women hold just 23 — with only one woman in the Senate. Couple this political environment with widely-held, conservative social beliefs about the sanctity of marriage and a woman’s role in society, and it is easier to understand why the problem is so prevalent in South Carolina.

South Carolina’s failure to correct this detrimental pattern is not unique, however. Nationwide, around three women are killed every day by a past or current partner. Other states, however, have taken measures to combat this issue, while South Carolina has remained largely stagnant. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a lawmaker and victim advocate, constantly remarks that it is easier to find resources for pets than for women. The state has an animal shelter in each of its 46 counties, but only 18 shelters for victims of domestic violence. A man can earn five years in prison for abusing his dog, but only a maximum of 30 days for beating his wife or girlfriend on a first offense. This past year, 12 measures to combat the system’s perpetuation of domestic violence have fizzled out in the legislature.

This summer, however, a law that tries to tackle this problem actually made it through the state legislature. Among other things, it toughened criminal penalties and ensured graduated gun bans for convicted abusers. The bill strengthens convictions by encoding degrees of injury and circumstances surrounding the attacks — both of which are important components that had previously been missing from South Carolina’s legal code. It also incorporates domestic violence education into middle school health classes.

And perhaps most importantly, the law attempts to tackle firearms. Abusers with second- and third-degree domestic violence convictions are barred from having a gun for three years. Those with first-degree convictions have to wait ten years. Those with convictions of an intensely violent nature are subjected to a lifetime gun ban.

The law was seen as a large step forward, but it failed to force domestic abusers to surrender their guns — a step that could ensure the safety of hundreds of women, as 94 percent of these murders are committed using guns. South Carolina is a state with one concealed carry permit for every 19 citizens. Not surprisingly, the support for Second Amendment gun rights for abusers categorically trumps the fact that these guns are killing women.

Critics go on to argue that the bill’s provisions are not enough. Lacking is a method for documenting and enforcing compliance with gun surrender. Cobb-Hunter has proposed legislation requiring convicted domestic abusers to surrender their weapons. It also would give the courts the ability to seize guns when a restraining order is issued and would include guns as a part of bond for those charged with violent crimes. Additionally, people who helped abusers get guns again would face felony charges. Unfortunately Cobb-Hunter’s is one of many laws that have floundered in the statehouse.

Although the the legislature did not pass the aforementioned law, Cobb-Hunter was able to push through a measure extending orders of protection to pets in cases of domestic abuse. She didn’t have 100 percent support in the General Assembly, but she had more support than she did with her effort to curb homicides — raising some very serious and disturbing questions about South Carolina’s priorities. Removing guns from the homes of domestic abusers is extremely important in preventing future abuse, but it seems as though the South Carolina legislature is far more concerned about protecting local cats and dogs.

Conservative conceptions of gender roles and family structures also prevent the passage of progressive legislation that could address these issues. In a massive investigation last year, the Charleston Post and Courier quoted House Minority Leader J. Todd Rutherford (a Democrat) saying “such laws fail to take into account that many cases involve families that might be preserved.” He also argued that women often drop the charges because they “realize the destructive consequences for the whole family.” One Republican — who resisted laws to keep guns away from abusers — said that “there needs to be a lot more love for Jesus in the world, and I think that would curb a lot of the violence.” This reflects a more endemic problem of how religion can either marginalize or fuel the issue of domestic violence and women’s rights in South Carolina and around the country. Of the ten states with the highest rate of male-on-female homicide, nearly all — including Oklahoma and West Virginia — have a similar level of religious conservatism.

These conceptions of women’s roles are particularly damaging when they intersect with gun legislation. South Carolina is one of more than 20 states that have passed a Stand Your Ground law, allowing citizens to use deadly force in self-defense. The law stops short at protecting women who protected themselves from violent intimate abusers.

These problems with the law originate within the legislature, where women’s representation stands at 13.5 percent. South Carolina, as part of the Bible Belt, has been a patriarchal society from its beginning. It often lags behind other states in passing laws relating to women’s freedoms—the 19th Amendment was not ratified until 1969 and marital rape wasn’t criminalized until 1991.

Progress has certainly been made, as South Carolina now boasts its first female governor, but the state still ranks 49th in the nation in regards to women elected to the legislature. With this in mind, it is easy to understand why domestic violence — which has long been relegated to the lowly status of a “women’s issue” — is not a priority in the legislature. South Carolina has a profoundly male-dominated power structure that lacks empathy for its female citizens. As a result, policies are grounded in preconceived notions of women being subordinate.

South Carolina’s women are dying, and although some individuals are trying to make progress, they are held back by oppressive religious, political, and social ideologies that do not belong in any century.


About the Author

Isabella Creatura '18 is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review.