Domestic Violence and Guns: Fighting the Lethal Combination

Kate Ranta married with high hopes. But within three years her dreams had become a nightmare, culminating nearly 11 years ago in a shooting by her estranged husband that could have killed her, her father or her young son.

Ranta believes it’s a miracle that she and they are alive and safe, with her abuser behind bars. That conviction has propelled her to share her story of domestic abuse and gun violence again and again. “I’m very vocal because I survived. I’m a voice for so many women who have been shot and killed,” Ranta says.

One of her many efforts has been writing a book about her experiences to help others understand what can be a shocking descent into an abusive relationship, and how to get help and find safety. Spoiler alert: It was far from easy for Ranta to get the police, courts, or the military to provide protection, and that truth has spurred her activism.

She has been especially vocal recently about red flag laws, which ban gun possession by people deemed a threat to others or themselves. Ranta, who works with both gun violence and domestic violence prevention groups, was featured this month in a press release and interviewed for an amicus brief submitted by March for Our Lives in the upcoming Supreme Court case United States v. Rahimi. The justices will decide this term whether a federal law barring gun possession by people subject to domestic violence restraining orders infringes on the Second Amendment.

The red flag issue is very close to home for Ranta, because when her abuser was threatening her, under Florida law and despite a restraining order and the seizure of his many firearms, she was unable to effectively prevent her then-husband from acquiring new guns.

“What good is that,” she says. “I was taking the steps that I needed to take. I left him and got a restraining order. But nothing was stopping him from going out and legally buying a gun.” And from her understanding, he did go out and buy a new gun – the 9 millimeter Beretta that he used to shoot her and her father.

When Ranta first met her husband, she was wooed by his attractiveness, apparent intelligence, and stable career as an Air Force officer. With no significant exposure to the military or sport hunting, Ranta at first discounted as a cultural difference his seeming love for and collection of guns. She was willing to overlook this interest if he promised to secure all of them, but he pressured her to allow him to keep ready access to one shotgun, with the excuse of wanting to have it ready for protection. But just a year into her new marriage, after the birth of their son William, her husband’s dangerousness became clear.

Ranta became increasingly concerned by her husband’s behavior toward her older son from a previous marriage, whom he accused of wanting to harm their new baby. She was also alarmed by his habit of using the excuse of “cleaning” firearms to play with them in a menacing way.

Ranta realized her husband was abusing prescription drugs. She says he sought to isolate her, and she agreed to have only family members or female Facebook friends to placate his jealousy. But one night, Ranta says, he overheard her laughing at a man’s post that had been forwarded to her, and he exploded. He peeled out of the garage, finally coming home and locking himself into the bedroom. Ranta heard him chambering a bullet. Terrified, she called 911. In the meantime, he grabbed their son Will and headed for the car again. Ranta followed him into the car for a horrific ride, with her child in her abuser’s lap, not secured in a car seat. Eventually he forced her out of the car, but returned home with Will.

While most of the officers who had come to the house seemed sympathetic to her husband because he was a military officer, one took her aside and told her she should seek a restraining order. That’s what she did, the very next day.

But it was not so simple to navigate the judicial system. “They don’t tell you what to do when filling out restraining order paperwork,” she remembers. “You don’t know if you’re checking off the right boxes, and you’re in full trauma, having to write out what just happened.” The wait to find out whether the order has been granted can last hours. “It’s absolutely traumatizing,” Ranta emphasized.  “I cannot underscore enough how absolutely debilitating that entire situation is with family court for women nationwide.”

Ranta had initial success, but later met dangerous roadblocks. Her first petition for a restraining order was granted, her husband was served, and the guns in the home that she knew about were seized. However, when she sought a permanent restraining order the judge refused, and Ranta had to return again and again to get what were ultimately several temporary restraining orders. The orders eventually lapsed and Ranta was unable to get another, despite multiple attempts.

Meanwhile, a contentious divorce proceeding was under way with one brief reconciliation – typical of abusive relationships. During this period, while her husband was with their son, Will began throwing up after ingesting something like Ambien.

This event caused Ranta to leave the home again and triggered a Child Protective Services investigation against her abuser, and an intervention that Ranta thinks was crucial and helpful. The CPS worker who had the case told Ranta that if she ever returned to her husband, Will would be taken away. Shortly thereafter, Ranta found an apartment in a gated community one town away from where she had lived and kept the address secret.

Nevertheless, her husband soon tracked her down. Ranta approached her car and saw that her tire had been slashed. She immediately called her father and the police. Without a restraining order and no proof of who had vandalized her vehicle, Ranta said law enforcement didn’t attempt to help and left.  As her father went to leave her apartment, he noticed that her husband was in the parking lot and he rushed to help Ranta bar the entry, with Will standing behind them. And then her abuser fired three shots through the door, one hitting Ranta in the breast and the other hitting her father.

As he barreled into the apartment, Ranta’s husband shot her in the hand, and her father in the side, at close range. Will pleaded with his father not to kill his mother – and for whatever reason, whether his son’s entreaty or the police gathered outside – Ranta’s husband let them go. 

In the aftermath, Ranta was thankful for a jury that she says gave her and her family justice. Her abuser was convicted on five counts, including  two counts of premeditated attempted first-degree murder, and will spend 60 years in prison without parole. She, her father, and her son have all been diagnosed with complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but continue to work on healing. And while Ranta did not find the military a helpful resource for her during the height of her abuse, she was asked to testify before Congress on her experiences, has become involved with a military task force on domestic violence, and has been allocated benefits for herself and her son.

She has also hooked up with other peer groups, such as Survivors Empowered, and is grateful for the solidarity she has found. “It’s something that we will always carry with us. Time has helped. We’ve all gone through the grief process. I know Sandy can attest I was stuck in anger for a while. I was so angry that this had happened at all. It was so preventable. There were so many red flags. Authorities let us down every step of the way.”

Ranta says “holding abusers accountable right from the start and limiting their access to weapons” is a very important part of her message. “A gun is the quickest, easiest and most effective way to take somebody’s life.” Though people sometimes say knives and even cars can be used to hurt or kill, Ranta notes that her abuser chose a gun, and a woman is five times more likely to be killed by a domestic abuser when he has a gun.

When the Rahimi case is heard, Ranta will be ready to talk to anyone who will listen about the critical danger rolling back red flag laws would pose. “I’m really angry that there were all of these warning signs, and nobody jumped to do anything until after the fact; it was very reactive,” she says. ”There should have been more eyes on him, and more consequences.” She believes authorities letting him slide emboldened him.

Ranta will continue working on all fronts, with those experiencing domestic abuse, survivors, and the general public, to dispel myths and create the kind of awareness that might have spared her so much pain. She feels the obligation.

“When it comes to speaking directly to domestic and gun violence, actual domestic and gun violence survivors should be the voice and face of that,” says Ranta.

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