After domestic violence ends in a murder-suicide on the police station steps, some women begin to protect themselves and their loved ones with deadly force.
For Jenifer, it was trouble with a boyfriend, a man with a prison background she knew nothing about, that caused her to think about getting a firearm. One night, as she stood before her daughter’s crib, he violently assaulted her. “It’s been ten years,” she remembers, “but the sense that it could happen again never leaves you.”
She talks about the laser-sited Glock handgun she prefers, and she doesn’t doubt for a minute that after her training at the Portland Firearms Training Team, she could use it if she had to. “My only fear is that I wouldn’t be able to get to it in time.”
Rachael is a registered nurse whose clients routinely require home visits. She sums up her decision to take the step of obtaining a concealed carry permit saying, “The only one who can protect me is me.”
She is also partial to her Glock 269mm small block, praising its simple mechanics and smaller, woman-sized grip. Both women have become accomplished shooters on the way to looking out for their own personal protection.
Jenifer and Rachael both grew up in families where guns existed only in the background of the family dynamic. Both owned BB guns, but Jenifer had to hide hers from her parents. Generally, shooting was not an activity for girls, and there was resistance, some subtle and some obvious. The women agree they’ve detected a fair share of male chauvinism on the way to becoming proficient with handguns. Rachel recalls the time clerk at a gun shop had a real problem selling her a firearm. “He ignored me at first, then acted as if he thought my husband ought to handle the purchase. It took me 30 minutes to buy that gun.”
Asked whether media reports contribute to her sense of urgency to carry her weapon, Jenifer says that all the impetus she needs she finds in her daily life. “I take a bus to work,” she says, “and the atmosphere can get pretty damn scary sometimes.”
“Most of what the media gives you is that guns are bad,” says Rachael.
Stacy is the only woman of the three who gathered at the Johnson Creek Gun Club to share their stories who has actually drawn her firearm in a suspicious situation and been in a position where she might have had to shoot. “It was at night, and I heard a noise in the house. My husband was away at the coast.”
She felt the adrenaline rush and yelled, “I’ve called the police, and I’m armed,” before determining that a ferret had entered her home and was making all those noises. “We all had a good laugh over that,” she says, but emphasizes the seriousness of the responsibility for anyone who uses a handgun for personal protection.
Stacy doesn’t single out a particular firearm as her favorite. “Whichever one is handy, as long as it is operable,” she says.
It was the stories she gathered from adult friends, “informative, frightening, tragic and very sobering,” that led to her decision to master firearms training. “The preponderance of the evidence suggested that it was the intelligent thing to do.”
It was one of the worst episodes of domestic violence the sleepy bedroom community of West Linn had ever seen. On a rainy weekday afternoon, the story of a woman desperate to get to the police ended in a murder-suicide on the steps of the police station. The tragic end of the McMurtreys shook the city, offering a stark and all-to-public tableau of what happens when domestic violence reaches a horrific tipping-point.
“I stood up and walked to the window,” Police Chief Terry Timeus told the West Linn Tidings after the incident, “and I could see him pulling up what appeared to be a rifle.”
Timeus and the other officers swung into action, but no one could have saved Lisa Gayle McMurtrey, who died at the scene. Newton Bill McMurtrey died of a self-inflicted wound in the hospital later that night. Timeus calculated that it was approximately 30 seconds from when the couple’s vehicles collided at the entrance to the first shot fired.
West Linn Police Captain Vic Lancaster was on duty at the time of the shooting. “We all felt a sense of loss and grief,” he says. She was coming here for help, and she was only a few feet away from that help.”
West Linn is a relatively low-crime community. When you exclude traffic incidents and property crimes, domestic violence calls quickly rise to the top of the incident frequency rates. “We have our share,” Lancaster admits, “but no more than in any other community.”
On the subject of women who decide, for whatever reason, to purchase and carry a handgun, Lancaster spells out the official department policy. “If that’s the way they want to go,” he says, “we encourage them to do so legally and definitely take an approved firearms course.”
Lancaster won’t speculate as to whether a firearm in Lisa McMurtrey’s possession might have saved her life, but he does offer information that was not in the media reports about the incident. “Women usually carry their handgun in their purse,” he reveals, “but that wouldn’t have mattered in this case because McMurtrey’s husband had relieved her of her purse and cell phone. That’s why she was trying to get here.”
Jenifer, Rachael and Stacy say that their husbands are comfortable and supportive of their firearm proficiency. “Because of the nature of my work, visiting the homes of my clients at all hours, my husband is very positive. He feels that some of the burden of protecting me has been taken from his shoulders,” says Rachael.
Jenifer’s husband is a long-haul trucker, often away from home, so he’s glad she can defend herself. Stacy takes it a step further. “My husband now feels that he has an ally, someone who’s got his back should the need arise.”
The women agree that becoming proficient in handgun use opened up their perceptions about other aspects of personal safety. “Just knowing how to use a gun made me want to avoid situations where I might have to use it,” says Jenifer, who explains that her weapon is just one tool in a range of strategies and measures to help her stay safe. What the woman refer to as “empty hand skills” are also important, as are mace, tasers, home alarm systems, and well-locked doors and windows.
“Guns are the hammer,” says Rachael, “a last resort.”
“Know your neighbors and have variations on your routes and schedules,” adds Stacy. “Trim the bushes back from your house, or get a dog.”
The women offer different takes on how they felt after becoming armed. “It made me more conscious and conservative with regard to the use of lethal force,” says Rachael.
Jenifer was “pretty excited” when she received her carry license. “There’s no question, I feel safer when I have it with me.”
“Having a firearm makes you much more aware of your environment,” says Stacy.
Portland Firearm Training Team Director Dave Hampton sits across the table at the Johnson Creek Gun Club, a card-lock access shooting range whose popularity is evidenced by a foot-high pile of expended lead and shell casings along the steel-reinforced back wall. A handful of shooters come and go, taking position on the range, loading their weapons. The occasional reports of various calibers punctuate his words.
“When founder Lee Anderson moved on in 2001 he asked me if I wanted to manage the facility,” says Hampton, who often practiced there.
Hampton took the job and now coordinates courses and shares instructor duties with the PFTT staff. Included in the curricula are NRA-approved courses in basic pistol use and personal protection. And the club offers two courses designed expressly for women: Women on Target, which offers training in a safe and supportive women-only environment, and Women Empowered for Defense, a “comprehensive personal safety and crime prevention plan,” which has trained 200 women since its 2002 inception.
A gender breakdown of the club shows that the representation of women is surprisingly high, 40 percent. “A lot of husbands and wives come together,” says Hampton, who also notes that boyfriends, fathers, and grandfathers often provide significant motivation for the women in their lives.
He offers some advice to women who are considering firearm training for personal protection. “Find competent instructors,” he says, “and don’t settle for anything less that hands-on, felt-recoil, live fire.”
Jenifer, Rachael and Stacy agree and offer a few hard-won observations on the subject of making the decision to arm. “Don’t let well-intentioned friends give you bad advice,” says Stacy.
“Make it part of a range of self-defense strategies,” says Rachael.
“It’s extremely crucial to get the proper training,” says Jenifer.
There’s another gunshot on the range, right on target. While the women don’t exactly high-five each other, there’s plenty of confidence in the room.
This article originally appeared in BrainstormNW Magazine.
Image of girl shoots an gun range courtesy of Shutterstock