A ‘Grim Tally’: Abusers, Guns, and the Women They Kill

While the broken-record question “Why didn't she leave” may never be satisfactorily answered in every situation, we know, definitively, how most U.S. women killed by abusive partners meet their end: They are shot to death.

While the broken-record question “Why didn't she leave” may never be satisfactorily answered in every situation, we know, definitively, how most U.S. women killed by abusive partners meet their end: They are shot to death. gun / shutterstock

Karen Cox Smith worked a little later than usual on January 8, 2013, typing up the minutes from a board meeting at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, the prestigious training hospital in a sprawling medical district on the west side of Dallas where she worked as an administrative assistant. Smith was the kind of worker who liked to do things right the first time, and she wanted to type up those notes while they were fresh on her mind.

As board members and doctors left for the evening, they asked her, “Why not walk out with us, like usual?” Ever since her estranged husband, Ferdinand Smith, had assaulted her in December, she’d been leaving work with others, just in case he showed up to cause trouble.

“No,” Smith told them. She’d be fine. She said she’d call security before she left, so they could escort her out.

A few weeks before the recent Christmas holiday, Ferdinand Smith cornered his wife on her way to work, dragging her out of her car in her own driveway. He strangled her and told her that he’d been thinking about it for a while, and he’d decided “today is the day you’re going to die.”

Desperate, she’d talked him down with pleas and promises of reconciliation, then got back in her car and drove to her office as if nothing had happened.

As it happens, on that January day when Smith was working late, she had called police to confirm her husband’s address. She believed they were on their way to finally arrest him. So when Smith finished up for the day—it was nearing 7:30 p.m.—she didn’t call security, because she didn’t believe she’d need to.

As Smith sent one last email to police, thanking them for finally taking action to pick up her husband, he waited for her out of sight in the hospital parking garage, hidden behind a bank of elevators between a skywalk and her silver Mustang.

This time when he confronted his wife, he was armed with more than a bad temper and brute strength. He came with a gun, and he wasted no time using it on the woman with whom he’d fathered three children. The can of mace that Smith always carried was no match for her husband’s weapon.

When Karen Cox Smith was laid to rest, the only parts of her body made visible were her arm and her hand.

When police finally arrested Ferdinand Smith in the early morning hours of January 9, it was not for shooting his wife to death in a parking garage hours before—which he ultimately confessed to doing—but for that earlier assault in her driveway, back in December.

Ferdinand was asleep when cops knocked on his door. If they’d arrived a few hours earlier, they might have caught him on his way to murder his wife.

Karen Cox Smith’s story is full of might-haves, should-haves, and could-haves, but her mother says she can’t think about it that way, even as she remembers the warning signs she’d seen, but not always recognized, throughout the couple’s 19-year marriage.

“We can second guess ourselves to death,” Sara Horton told Rewire, as she recounted the last few hours of her daughter’s life, as reconstructed for her by Dallas police. “If this had been done or if that had been done.”

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that, on average, more than three women a day are killed by current or former intimate partners in the United States, and many of the should-haves and could-haves that pepper Smith’s relationship with her estranged husband are the same should-haves and could-haves thrown at the thousand or more women who are killed by their partners in this country each year: should have gone to a shelter, should have taken a lethality risk test, could have filed charges, could have testified against him.

The problem with that should-have, could-have conversation is the popular implication that the ability, and the responsibility, to change the behavior of abusive men lies not with the abusers, but with the partners they strike, strangle, and shoot.

It’s why the question “Why didn’t she leave?” is far more common than, “Why did he abuse her?”

But research shows us why she, whoever she might be, didn’t leave: she didn’t have the money, she didn’t want to take the kids out of school, she couldn’t find a shelter, there was no shelter, she was embarrassed, her pastor or her mother or her father or her sister told her a good wife doesn’t give up, her self-esteem was in shreds, she had literally nowhere to go, or she knew that, in leaving, she would put herself in more danger than if she stayed.

But if women can’t be blamed for inciting violence in their partners, or at least scolded for not bailing at the first red flag, the problem of why intimate partner violence happens in the first place, and what to do about it, becomes much more complicated than asking the broken-record question, “Why didn’t she leave?”

What hard evidence does show is that while the “why” may never be satisfactorily answered in every situation, we know, definitively, how most U.S. women killed by abusive partners meet their end: They are shot to death.

According to a 2003 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, the risk of homicide against women increases 500 percent when a gun is present in domestic violence situations, and the FBI estimates that in 2010, 64 percent of women murdered with guns were killed by a current or former intimate partner. The Violence Policy Center reports that in 2010, the number of women shot and killed by partners was six times higher than the number killed by strangers using all other weapons combined.

In Texas, the numbers echo national estimates: the Texas Council on Family Violence reports that, in 2011, firearms were used in 64 percent of 102 cases where women were murdered by current or former intimate partners. The FBI also estimates that, in states where a background check is required for every handgun sale, 38 percent fewer women are shot and killed by abusive partners. Texas is not one of those states.

When it comes to the should-haves and could-haves of domestic violence murders, one “should” appears to be clear: Domestic abusers should not have access to firearms. But abusers can easily sidestep background checks by purchasing from private sellers, or shopping for weapons at a gun show, and efforts to close those loopholes have been thwarted.

Earlier this year, pressure from the national gun lobby overshadowed the overwhelming evidence connecting domestic violence homicides to guns when the U.S. Senate rejected tougher gun laws that would have expanded those background checks and banned some semi-automatic weapons.

Paulette Sullivan Moore with the National Network to End Domestic Violence says that the Second Amendment and tougher gun laws are not mutually exclusive, which makes the Senate’s rejection of the firearms bill that much more heartbreaking.

“The reality is that responsible gun owners also want other gun owners to be responsible,” said Sullivan Moore. Her organization has been speaking with senators who voted to renew the Violence Against Women Act but who are against gun reform, senators who she says are seemingly “unable to make the connection between prior armed violence and violence against women.”

In their 19-year relationship, there’s no evidence that indicates Ferdinand Smith threatened his wife with a gun before he shot and killed her on January 8. But, according to an affidavit written by Karen Cox Smith in her own hand in 1999, he had often hit and strangled her and stalked her in her own home, and he had threatened her with knives on multiple occasions. He also raped her.

Sara Horton said she wished she’d been able to do something to stop her son-in-law over the years, before he got the gun.

“People like him should not have access to guns,” said Horton. “Guns don’t kill people. They don’t shoot themselves.”

What if men with a demonstrable history of domestic violence—men like Ferdinand Smith—couldn’t just walk into a firearms shop or a gun show and purchase a weapon?

Each year, the Texas Council on Family Violence (TCFV) releases a report, “Honoring Texas Victims,” that names each woman killed by an intimate partner that year. Sixty-six of the 102 women killed by male partners in 2011, the most recent year for which TCFV has data available, were shot to death. Four of those victims had active protective orders out against their killers; two of those murders involved a firearm, despite the fact that persons with protective orders against them are prohibited from possessing firearms in Texas.

“Firearms are a definite problem in intimate partner relationships,” said TCFV Policy Director Aaron Setliff. He calls his organization’s report a “grim tally,” meant to “change the conversation a little bit,” to tell the stories of women killed by abusive partners.

Female victims of domestic homicide come from across the state, and are of all races and ages, according to the TCFV report: In San Antonio, Aileen Harbridge, 27, was shot and killed at her workplace by her ex-boyfriend, and Antoinette Haynes, 70, was shot and killed by her husband on Thanksgiving Day. In Dallas, 25-year-old Autumn Carey was shot and killed in front of her two children by her ex-boyfriend, who also killed Carey’s stepfather and her sister’s boyfriend.

In far West Texas, Destiny Ann Pickett, 39, was shot and killed by her husband, Clifford, at a motel. He also killed one of her co-workers. In Houston, 45-year-old Lisa Campos was shot in her car by her husband while “in the process of ending their relationship.” Ricky Campos also shot himself. In East Texas, Micah Brown shot his 35-year-old ex-wife in her car while her children were riding with her.

In Corpus Christi, 18-year-old Viviana Amaya and two of her friends were shot and killed by Amaya’s boyfriend. In Fort Worth, Michael Nichols shot his 56-year-old wife, Patricia Jean, as well as her mother. In Austin, 37-year-old Sylvia Richardson was shot and killed by her boyfriend in front of her four children in their home. In Port Arthur, 33-year-old Anna Tran was shot and killed by her boyfriend, Vinh Le, who later shot himself.

These women, coming from a vast array of backgrounds and circumstances, all had one thing in common: They were unable to escape abusive partners who had access to firearms and who used those weapons to kill their partners and, in many cases, the people who tried to intervene.

Aaron Setliff noted that Texas has a five-year prohibition against owning firearms for anyone convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor, and while federal law places a permanent prohibition on that same group, the loopholes offered at gun shows and through online purchases make it relatively easy to sidestep that law.

And with some of the most permissive gun laws in the nation already on the books, the Texas legislature this year passed 13 laws making it even easier to obtain and carry firearms.

The occasion was called “Gun Day,” and the new laws ranged from allowing students to carry weapons on state university campuses to reducing the number of classroom hours required to obtain a concealed handgun license from ten to four. The legislature also passed a state law that would “refuse enforcement of any new federal gun laws.”

As a state, says Aaron Setliff at the TCFV, “Texas has a very robust sense of the average person’s ability to possess a firearm.”

In light of “Gun Day,” that may be an understatement.

Where Ferdinand Smith obtained the gun that he used to shoot and kill Karen Cox Smith is, so far, unclear. According to arrest records, he told police in his confession that he obtained his weapon as part of his job as a security guard at a Dallas faith-based charter school, but school officials told Rewire that they never issued Smith a gun as part of his duties. Horton said police told her that they have not recovered the weapon used to kill her daughter. Dallas police have refused to comment on any aspect of the case, citing the ongoing investigation.

What is clear is that for the majority of her 19-year marriage to Ferdinand Smith, Karen Cox Smith lived in fear of her husband. The two had known each other growing up in small-town Daingerfield, Texas, but it wasn’t until college, after Karen had moved back home from Texas Tech University to attend community college near her family, that they began seeing each other. When she became pregnant with their first child, who is now 18, they married.

According to court documents, over the course of their relationship Karen Cox Smith filed for two protective orders against him, the first after he raped her in 1998 at knifepoint in their home county.

Later, in an April 1999 Dallas County affidavit seeking her second protective order, Karen Cox Smith detailed years of abuse, written in two pages of tight cursive:

– “In 1993, Ferdinand threw a can of starch at me, my arm was so swollen I went to RHD [a local hospital] for examination.”

– “When I was pregnant in 10/97, Ferdinand took a butcher knife, pointed it at my stomach, and told me he would kill the baby and I if I ever went to sleep.”

– “Once, he choked me with his hands to the point I lost consciousness. He left me laying in the bathtub while he tried to decide what to do with my body.”

– “I have suffered black eyes, knots on my head, blurry vision, headaches, busted lips, soreness and hoarseness in my throat, handprints on my neck, and cut [sic] on my arm requiring stitches, bruises on my body and legs.”

Then, on March 30, 1999, when the Smiths were separated, Karen came home to find Ferdinand, dressed all in black, hiding in her closet. In her affidavit, she wrote:

“I told him to leave. Ferdinand was in the house for an hour using the phone to call for a ride. I was very afraid. Ferdinand finally left on foot when the ride never appeared. I went around and locked all of the doors that had been unlocked. When I looked on the back porch Ferdinand had come back and was standing there. I was even more afraid.”

Smith let her husband in, telling him she was about to leave. But he blocked her exit. She tried to call the police. Then:

“Ferdinand grabbed me by the shirt and put the knife, a long steak knife, against my throat. He said, ‘I’m going to kill you and kill myself.’”

Ferdinand Smith told his wife that if her mother came to the home, “there would be two dead bodies.” He stabbed a Styrofoam cup that Karen had been holding and told her to sit on the couch, where she pleaded with him to let her go. She wrote that he had two more knives in his pocket as he was “pacing back and forth, crying and screaming that I was taking his children.”

Finally, Smith’s mother, Sara Horton, telephoned as Ferdinand Smith held his wife at knifepoint, and Horton then called 9-1-1. When they came to arrest him, police found another knife that Ferdinand Smith had hidden on his wife’s back porch.

A little over two weeks after the March 30 assault, Karen Cox Smith discovered what she described as “hand restraints” taped to the bed she slept in. After that, she filed for the protective order.

“I believe that the physical violence will continue if I do not receive protection,” she wrote.

It did, but this time the abuse was kept secret as the couple reconciled after Ferdinand Smith spent time in jail and underwent counseling for domestic abusers—“The kids wanted their Daddy, she wouldn’t testify,” remembers Sara Horton. The family began attending a megachurch in South Dallas. Ferdinand Smith volunteered as an usher, said Horton, and he sang in the choir. “From the outside in, it looked like he’d gotten it,” she remembered. “But he hadn’t.”

Karen Cox Smith started spending as much time as possible at work, said Horton. She knew her daughter had a good work ethic—all three of her children did, it was a point of family pride—but looking back now, she realizes it was one of her daughter’s survival tactics.

“[Karen] would work late a lot, and I finally realized after the fact that it was because she didn’t want to come home,” said Horton. “To prevent a fight from happening. Anything to prevent a fight.”

Over the years, Horton and her husband—she divorced Karen’s father in 1994 and moved to Dallas—always planned their bills around whether Smith would need money for her family. Horton said that Ferdinand Smith would often spend great deals of money on himself, leaving his wife with very little in their shared bank account. He never really managed to keep a job. Instead, said Horton, he relied on his wife to be the breadwinner, and when he’d go on spending sprees, he always made sure to bring home shoes or other expensive items for the kids to smooth things over.

Horton said the pastor at the church the family attended, the Inspiring Body of Christ, was no good for her daughter. She said whenever she tried to talk to Karen about the ongoing trouble she suspected at home, Karen would tell her, “I’m just trying to do what my pastor tells me.”

That was frustrating, said Horton, because she doesn’t believe, as that church does, that “any husband in the home, father in the home, is better than no father in the home. That’s not right.”

By late 2012, the couple had separated again, and Karen Cox Smith was living in a home next door to her mother in Dallas. Horton laughed when remembering drive-time phone calls between mother and daughter as they took similar routes to and from work.

“If I’d be ahead of her, I’d tell her, don’t go this way!” Horton said. “I just miss talking to her. I miss her terribly.”

But protective orders and counseling and religious intervention never turned Ferdinand Smith from a violent abuser into a loving husband. And when he got a gun, he became a murderer.

Despite time spent in jail for missing a hearing, Ferdinand Smith received an adjudicated sentence for the 1999 knife assault of his wife, which meant that domestic violence charges would never have shown up on a gun background check after he finished his ten-year probationary period.

It’s possible that Smith purchased the gun he used to murder his wife on the black market, but Texas gun laws are so lax that, even as a convicted domestic abuser, he’d likely have had no need to go to those lengths.

In Texas, where there are no required waiting periods for the purchase of firearms, Smith could have purchased the weapon at a gun show, ordered it online, or purchased it from a private seller without ever going through a federal background check. If he had a concealed handgun license, he could have purchased it directly from a gun store in the state without a background check. Concealed handgun license records are not available to the public in Texas, and there is no statewide gun registry.

Smith’s ability to carry a weapon was a twofold failure. Not only would current gun regulations have allowed him plenty of leeway to obtain a firearm, but checks currently in place would have missed his violent history.

At least in Dallas, in the wake of Karen Cox Smith’s murder, the conversation around domestic violence and guns is changing. In March, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings officially launched an initiative called “Dallas Men Against Domestic Violence” at a rally attended by thousands, featuring former Dallas Cowboy football players, religious leaders, television personalities, and corporate representatives from Verizon and Mary Kay cosmetics.

Volunteers and workers from local domestic violence shelters helped staff booths at the rally, and Paige Flink, executive director of Dallas’ Family Place, says she’s glad to see city leaders come out strong against domestic violence, not in urging women to do more to report it, but in urging men to stop it before it starts. Part of doing that, she says, is to focus on taking guns out of the hands of abusers.

“It’s absolutely concerning that a person who has committed a violent crime can keep a gun and the gun isn’t removed,” she told Rewire. “It is easier to kill someone with a gun than it is to beat someone with a cinder block.”

Jan Langbein, executive director of Dallas’ Genesis Women’s Shelter, said that “the courts have to get the guns away from these guys. It’s so much easier to pull a trigger, plus they can shoot everybody in the room.”

That’s just what Aaron Setliff at the Texas Council on Family Violence, is working on: gun surrender. Instead of working legislatively to change statute, Setliff says his organization works more “programmatically,” on “policies and procedures that work at the local level,” and he’s specifically enthused about programs that create a system for convicted abusers to surrender their weapons to law enforcement.

“This is one area … where we can get both sides of the aisle to move a little bit away from where they have been in the overall gun debate,” said Setliff. “People aren’t necessarily feeling like they are targeted in terms of gun rights when we’re talking about batterers.”

Setliff cited the work of Judge Patricia Macias in El Paso, who in 2005 organized the Domestic Violence Firearm Surrender Advisory Committee to create protocols for the surrender of weapons possessed by domestic abusers. The impetus for the project was not specifically a domestic violence murder, but the death of an El Paso police officer who was shot by an abusive husband while responding to a family violence call. Now, the committee is working on “integration and institutionalization” of the surrender protocols, which detail where, when, and how firearms can be retrieved by law enforcement, whether or not a firearm was used in a particular incident.

“Fatality is the ultimate when it comes to domestic violence, and it’s pretty easy to link it to firearms,” said Setliff. But police need to know when and how they can confiscate weapons, and convicted abusers need to know when and where they should surrender their weapons.

“One of the best indicators of a victim being murdered is a previous instance of domestic violence, so you already have a predictor,” said Setliff. “But going forward, if they haven’t been convicted, the gun issue becomes even more poignant at that level.”

If Ferdinand Smith had somehow been flagged—despite his adjudicated record for the 1999 assault—he might have been stopped from purchasing the gun he used to kill his wife.

Until legislators at the state and national levels draw the connection between the presence of guns and domestic homicide, we can expect to see many more Karen Cox Smiths in the news—though, as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates, 1.3 million women experience physical abuse at the hands of their partners every year in the United States; it’s more than likely that the newspaper is not the only place Americans will come to know the names of domestic violence survivors and victims.

They are our coworkers and our friends, our relatives and ourselves. And the culture of shame that surrounds domestic violence—that erases the responsibility of abusers and places the blame on their partners—obscures the fact that one in four adult women are beaten or raped by a partner.

Sara Horton told Rewire that she has to believe that her daughter’s murder, as violent as it was, happened as it did for a reason, and that she wants to do whatever she can to raise awareness around domestic violence in the aftermath of her daughter’s death. Horton says that after 19 years of abuse, she believes her daughter may have finally reached peace, where she could never find it in her life with Ferdinand Smith.

“I think God scooped her up and took her immediately to heaven,” said Horton. “I think she was gone before she ever hit the concrete. That may sound like Pollyanna, but that’s how I have to look at it in order to get up and go to work every day.”