When track star Oscar Pistorius killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine's Day last year, he did not do it by himself. The disabled South African athlete -- known as the "Blade Runner" for his high tech prosthetic legs -- did not strangle his victim; he did not punch or kick her to death. Instead, he called on an all too willing, available and lethal accomplice: a 9 mm pistol at his bedside, a gun he testified he keeps for "protection" from home invasion. He used that gun to shoot four times through the closed and locked door of a bathroom toilet stall, killing Steenkamp. Pistorius' gun was loaded with a notorious kind of expanding bullet that mushrooms upon impact and causes maximum tissue damage. She never had a chance.
Prosecutors have charged Pistorius, 27, with premeditated murder, contending he had argued with Steenkamp, and when she fled to the bathroom, he shot her in fury. Pistorius has testified that he mistook Steenkamp for a night intruder and was in a state of fear when he shot through the door in self-defense. As the highly publicized trial comes to a close next week, a judge will deliver the verdict (there is no jury system in South Africa). But premeditated or not, the fact remains -- and this Pistorius has freely acknowledged -- he did indeed shoot and kill the 29-year-old Steenkamp.
What was the role of the gun in abetting the alleged murder? It made a crime-of-the-moment far too easy. We know this from many public health studies showing that guns in the home are far more likely to result in the intimidation or shooting of a woman by her partner than in protection from an intruder. In the United States, more than one-third of households contain a working firearm, with nearly half of all men being firearm owners. A Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health fact sheet states that more than twice as many women are shot and killed by a husband or intimate acquaintance than are killed by a stranger using a gun, knife, strangulation or any other means. A study of risk factors for violent death of women in the home found that women living in homes with one or more guns were three times more likely to be killed in their homes.
According to the Small Arms Survey, an international group based in Geneva that tracks gun violence, approximately 66,000 women worldwide are killed violently each year, generally in the home, and the perpetrator is usually a current or former partner. About a third of these femicides is committed with a gun. Additionally, the survey reports, "men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of intimate partner murder-suicide, and rates with firearms are higher in countries with high rates of guns kept in the home."
David Hemenway, a professor and expert in violence prevention at the Harvard School of Public Health, has amassed statistical evidence showing that the availability of lethal means of violence affects both whether a confrontation occurs and also how that confrontation ends. Killing with a knife or other object "is much harder, physically close, watching the blood spurt," he said. "It's easy to pull the trigger; it's antiseptic."
That may have been the case with Pistorius. At his trial, when photos of Steenkamp's shattered head and body were presented as evidence, Pistorius vomited in the courtroom.
So are athletes more prone to domestic violence than other groups? Recently there have been grotesque anecdotal headlines that would make us think so. Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens was charged in February with aggravated assault after being caught on an Atlantic City casino security camera dragging his unconscious fiancée out of an elevator. In a 2012 murder-suicide, Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs shot his girlfriend and mother of his child nine times with a hand gun before driving to the Chiefs' training facility and shooting himself in the head. And, of course, there was Pistorius.
But experts say there is no real evidence that athletes are any different from the general public when it comes to guns and partner abuse. Emily Rothman, Associate Professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, studies intimate partner violence and co-authored a recent study of more than 8,500 previously identified male batterers. The study found that across all demographics -- income, race, age and urban/suburban/rural areas -- men used guns to threaten their partners in similar percentages.
Rothman's study also found that guns are used more frequently to intimidate than kill. Men displayed various strategies: They would threaten to shoot "a pet or other thing their partner cared about." During arguments, they would take out their gun and clean it in front of the partner. Or they'd simply hold it, or go outside the house and let off a shot.
The gun, says Rothman, "can elevate the overall level of tension and fear the victim experiences daily. It can up the ante."
Pistorius has been described during his trial as a jealous man with a short temper and a passion for guns. He owns seven guns, including the weapon he used to kill Steenkamp. She was plainly afraid of him. In text messages introduced at the trial she wrote to Pistorius a few weeks before her murder: "I do everything to make you happy and to not say anything to rock the boat with u. You do everything to throw tantrums in front of people." And "I'm scared of u sometimes and how u snap at me and of how you will react to me."
A household gun can abet other tragedies. According to the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, where Hemenway serves as director, the availability of a gun also greatly increases the probability of a "successful" suicide attempt by family members in the home, including teenagers, versus attempts through other, less consistently lethal means (such as pills or cutting).
The shocking part of all of this data is how many women are in the dark about the presence of a gun in the home. Several years ago, Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute analyzed surveys asking husbands and wives about household firearms and found a serious disconnect. The number of husbands who reported a gun or guns in their household was 12 percentage points higher than that of the wives.
In an article in the journal Pediatrics, the Harvard Injury Control group also pointed out data showing that even when gun owners and their partners are aware of the presence of a firearm, they often are not on the same page about how the gun is stored. Some 21 percent of gun owners reported that a household gun was stored loaded, while just 7 percent of partners believed it was loaded.
Are there particular messages for women in the horrors of the Pistorius murder trial? Certainly we now should understand that a partner's gun is more likely to be used to harm you or frighten you than to defend against any intruder. Women should also be motivated out of concern for all household members to discover whether there are guns in the home and if they are stored safely.
At a more society-wide level, Hemenway adds that women can help protect one another from intimate partner gun violence through their actions in the privacy of the voting booth. Surveys show that women are far more open than men to supporting sensible gun laws.
South Africa is admittedly a violent state, with high crime and civil unrest. According to the Small Arms Survey, it ranks fourth highest worldwide in murders of females. But the relationship between Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp in that bedroom, that night, with a gun, is universal.
Robin Herman is a former assistant dean at Harvard School of Public Health. She was the first female sportswriter at The New York Times and also wrote for The Washington Post's award-winning Health section. She was featured in the ESPN documentary on pioneering female sportswriters "Let Them Wear Towels," part of the Nine for IX series.