It’s been eight years since I ran out of my master bedroom past my husband who was shooting me, screaming for our children to get out of the house and call 911. My daughter sent her little brother to get help and came to see what was happening. As I ran from the house she witnessed her father shooting me in the back before turning the gun on himself. My son flagged down cars on the road until someone finally stopped, and he pleaded with them to call 911. They thought he was playing a practical joke.
During surgery, with two collapsed lungs and more than two liters of blood loss, I went into hypovolemic shock as my blood pressure plummeted and my heart rate went into the 200s. A family friend, my priest, and a child trauma counselor told my twelve and nine-year-old children I might not make it through the night, and their father had died from his self-inflicted gunshot wound.
To the world, my husband snapped one day. For me, it was the culmination of years of verbal abuse and control. I realized the toll it was taking on me and the children, and I asked for a divorce. I didn’t recognize the signs leading up to the shooting because I didn’t know what the signs were.
In hindsight, there was an escalating pattern of verbal and psychological abuse, financial control, manipulation, constant attempts to isolate me from my family and friends, using the threat of getting full custody of the children to keep me in the marriage — blaming me for his abhorrent behavior — and stalking me.
He was not mentally ill, rather he was calculating in the execution of his plan. He’d threatened for years if I ever tried to leave he’d “put a bullet through my head”. I thought those were harsh words, but not viable threats. I reasoned surely the man who said he loved me and his children, who vowed to protect me, would not carry out his threats. Despite this reasoning, I tried unsuccessfully to have the guns removed from our house.
That day, in a matter of minutes, our life as we knew it was erased and replaced with this, the aftermath of intimate partner gun violence. Not one aspect of our former lives has remained untouched. Emotionally, physically, cognitively, and financially, our world continues to teeter.
My children lived, but they were not unharmed. They witnessed their father shooting their mother before committing suicide. They are forever hurt. I lived. Two bullets exited my body and two bullets remain; one is in my liver next to my heart, the other in my breast at my chest wall. Four surgeries later, our trauma remains unimaginable to the average person.
I once believed, naively, that it just happened to me. Then I repeatedly heard stories of others who narrowly escaped a partner’s bullets and more stories still of those who did not. Each new story brings us back to that day, to the pain and panic and fear, to our knees. It is a constant reopening of a wound that cannot heal in the midst of navigating people carrying guns openly, of school, theater, church, and office shootings; of lawmakers who look away and deny culpability for their voting against protective safety measures. This denial is painfully similar to how my husband denied his abuse. Finding safety has been replaced with seeking solace in the growing numbers of others who have also experienced gun violence.
Lisette Johnson is a tireless advocate for survivors of intimate partner violence and brings a personal voice to conversations about safer gun laws. She has worked with traumatized gun and domestic violence survivors in hospital settings, testified on state and federal gun safety legislation,and spoken to employees from federal agencies, corporations and universities around the country about the intersection of guns and domestic violence. She lives in central Virginia with her two children and it is ultimately for all children that Lisette breaks the silence and speaks out.