My boyfriend insisted a gun would keep us “safer” up until the day he shot me in the face

When you least expect it.
When you least expect it.
Image: Fanqiao Wang
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I met Kenny in June of 2009. I was 22 and he was 34. I am a blues singer—he’d seen me at one of the many gigs I played that year in California, where I was living at the time. A mutual friend introduced us, and Kenny told me that he loved my voice.

I immediately liked him. He was charming and handsome. I was also attracted to his intelligence—we talked in a deep, philosophical way that first night. He lived in Utah and was just visiting, so I spent the next few days taking him to a local oyster festival and my favorite beaches. He told me a bit about his life: half-Samoan, he was born in Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, but was raised a Mormon in California and Hawaii before going to Brigham Young University. He had worked in IT, but when we met, he was looking for new opportunities. We stayed in touch, and “officially” started dating in July when he invited me to Utah. It was on that trip, barreling down the highway in his diesel pickup, when he told me he had a concealed carry license. His gun, he said, was in the console.

I got goosebumps. My uncle killed himself with a gun when I was 9, so I’ve always been scared of them. I told him that story, but he reassured me that he had been extensively trained, and that his gun was for our protection. ”This will keep us safer,” he promised.

I didn’t think about the gun during those early months—not until we went to Las Vegas for a tattoo convention slated to happen in early October. He got a penthouse room and made dinner plans, but then we saw on the news that a tsunami had hit Pago Pago. He got upset. We went out for dinner, but I left in tears before the food was even served because he’d started arguing with me. He said that he liked to debate and I shouldn’t engage in political discourse with him if I couldn’t “handle it.”

Back in our hotel room, he continued to rant. He seemed unhinged—and I was hungry. When I asked if he wanted to get something to eat, he flipped out. “How could you be so selfish?” he screamed. Then he grabbed his gun—he always carried it on him—and started pacing the room again, berating me. He never pointed it at me, but I was scared. I finally left the room to get dinner on my own and calm down. I kept reassuring myself: He would never hurt me.

By the end of October, he had moved to California looking for a fresh start. He had lost his IT job and, I learned, was about to lose his house. He was under a lot of financial stress. I blamed that for his bizarre behavior in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, I was busier than ever. In 2009, I played 97 gigs, my personal record. Kenny said that he fell in love with me for my voice, but he started making jealous remarks about my fans.

For Thanksgiving, I invited him to Seattle to meet my family. He had moved in with me and things were serious between us. Still, I was nervous to introduce him to my mom. I was stunned when he chastised me in front of her for leaving Seattle to pursue my career. My mother defended me, and I felt so overwhelmed that I went outside to have a cigarette, which made Kenny furious. By the time I came back inside, he had taken off in his truck. My mother said, “Courtney, if you stay with him, he will kill you.”

At the time, I thought she was trying to sabotage my happiness. But now I realize she saw through his facade. I didn’t—I was in love with him. When I called him, begging him to return, he said he was heading to Vegas to see his cousin. He was still furious at me and left messages through the night berating me. I went to bed heartbroken.

I was awakened by a phone call from an automated operator. An inmate at the Clark County Jail in Las Vegas was attempting to contact me. I accepted the charges. Kenny had been arrested for a DUI. ”I’m in trouble,” Kenny said through the receiver. “I’m so sorry I got so upset when I met your family.”

He just kept apologizing profusely and then asked me to help him.

I booked my flight to Vegas. His cousin picked me up at the airport and told me that  Kenny was being charged with a DUI and a hit-and-run. I felt betrayed—why didn’t he tell me about the hit and run?

When I picked him up at the precinct in Vegas, he was so happy to see me. As he wrapped his arms around me, I noticed he had a Ziploc bag with all his belongings, including his Kimber .45. I tensed up. He may have sensed this because he quickly slipped it into his coat pocket.

We went to his cousin’s home, where I finally asked him about the hit-and-run. That made him angry—and when he was angry, he’d speak in this really measured creepy way. He never raised his voice as he berated me. I immediately knew I had made a mistake coming there.

The next four days were torture: He wouldn’t let me eat or use the bathroom unless he said it was okay. The days were a haze. He kept me trapped in his cousin’s guest bedroom, lecturing me about how he was starving me to help me lose weight. It was crazy. If I fell asleep, he’d wake me up, telling me I was selfish. I started planning my escape. I pretended to fall asleep and waited for him to leave the room.

As soon as he went to use the bathroom, I’d grabbed my suitcase and was halfway down the stairs when he jumped and pinned me down. I tried to wrestle him off me.

“Why must you constantly defy me?” he said. “You say you want me to be happy yet you try to leave when times get tough! People in relationships stick it out during the rough patches!”

Over next 48 hours, I did anything I could to get in Kenny’s good graces. I finally was able to escape after having sex with him and waiting for him to fall asleep. I grabbed my purse, padded down the stairs and then ran out of his cousin’s house and as fast and hard as I could, zigzagging through the side streets in case Kenny woke up and found me gone. I made my way to a grocery store where I finally took out my phone and booked the first flight from Las Vegas to California.

It is hard for anyone to understand this, but I did love him. And even though I knew it was not a healthy love at that point, I still missed the man I fell in love with. He was not the man who had trapped me in Las Vegas. It was as if he had two personalities altogether, Jekyll and Hyde. To make matters worse, Christmas was coming, and I was still at odds with my mom. I felt terribly alone.

I decided to go out for Christmas Eve. I was applying my eye makeup when I hear three raps at my foyer door. I thought it may be my friend, but then opened the door to see Kenneth.

He told me he had nowhere else to go and that I was the only person he could turn to—and the only person he could trust. He vowed to take accountability for the hit-and-run. I wanted to believe him. I let him in. I woke up early on Christmas morning and bought fresh Dungeness crab to make eggs Benedict for brunch. Later, we went to my aunt’s for a bonfire on the bay. He was back to being the man I fell in love with.

Out of the blue, Kenny proposed to me on Jan. 12, 2010. I had a sinister feeling in my gut, and yet felt as if I could not say no.

He decided we wanted to get pregnant, but I wasn’t sure. I’d had abortions in the past and didn’t want to commit to having a child with him. I didn’t realize it, but this was the beginning of the end.

A few days later, as I was clearing the table, he began furiously kissing me. I let him have his way with me, silently hoping it would calm him down. Afterward, I told him I was going out to see my friends.

“You know that means game over, right?!” he shouted from the living room. “Abortion means game over,” he said. “You’re going to hell.”

I was putting on makeup in the bathroom when I heard rustling in the bedroom. I went to see what was happening just as Kenny flung Raja, my cat, against the wall. I went to get him a glass of water and as I walked back into the room, I saw him loading his Kimber .45.

“What are you doing?” I asked alarmed.

“I need to go out,” he said. His eyes were vacant and far away. Then he said, “I just killed your cat.”

I was overcome with chills. “I can’t be with someone who would do that,” I stammered, fighting back tears.

“You can’t be with me?” he said it again, with a crazed look in his eyes.

“No.” I said.

That’s when he lunged for the door. I tried to stop him, and then he pulled out his gun.

Shots rang out and the kitchen door window shattered as I crouched and covered my ears. Then he aimed the gun at me. I turned to shield my face and felt one bullet pierce my right arm. The second one tore through my jaw.

I went into the living room to find my phone and saw a gaping hole in my forearm. Then I saw the trail of blood reaching from the kitchen to the couch. When I screamed for help, and along with my cries, blood, teeth, and tissue came out of my mouth.

I stumbled out of the house and down to my neighbor’s, who called the police, and then I was eventually airlifted to UC Davis. Three blood transfusions and a 16-hour surgery, I finally learned the extent of the damage: the second bullet pierced my right ulna, my right upper maxillary, destroyed five teeth, lacerated my tongue diagonally, shattered the left half of my mandible, before abscessing in my neck.

Since that day, I’ve had 13 reconstructive surgeries. I would eventually need one year of weekly physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech pathology to rehabilitate my voice, followed by four years of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy. In total, I’ve had more than $750,000 in medical treatment—some of it covered by my insurance, some not.

Getting shot was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me. An intimate relationship is private. Suddenly, mine was open to public scrutiny. I felt shame because secretly I still struggled with my romantic feelings—they didn’t just vanish after he left me for dead. I still wrestle with that.

I also blamed myself for the shooting and for not being able to subdue Kenny. Society and the system blame me too. I was financially responsible for cleaning up the crime scene. I remember thinking, as I scrubbed my own blood from the carpets, “Why doesn’t he have to do this?” I moved five times in six months following my shooting because nobody wanted to rent to me. They thought I was trouble. I started to believe them. Maybe I was trouble?

Kenny pleaded guilty on Nov. 18, 2010, to assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to 11 years. He is scheduled to be released from prison in 2019. That’s three years away.

Meanwhile, I received the police report of the shooting. I was amazed to see that I told police that we had not been fighting that night. In the months that followed, I learned that I was in an abusive relationship. I lived in a Seattle domestic violence shelter for three months in 2011, which allowed me to get back up on my feet again and get an apartment.

Today, I volunteer for the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence and work with Everytown for Gun Safety. I shared my story—and photos of my bullet-ridden body—which helped pass House Bill 1840 and Initiative I-594, which give law enforcement tools to remove firearms when a domestic violence protective order is granted.

To prepare for my testimony, I began tracking shootings in Washington State—who was shot, how, why. Since then, I’ve researched over 500 shootings related to domestic violence. For each one, I think: This woman had a life, she had passions, she had dreams, she was like me. She just wanted love, she just wanted to leave when it wasn’t working anymore. But he had a gun. And now she is gone.

People tell me I’m lucky because I survived. But the shooting had nothing to do with chance. I’m merely a product of the lethal coincidence of domestic violence and firearms in a household. I could have been a statistic–one of the 8,700 women who were shot to death by their partners between 2000 and 2013. More often than not, when they have left or are attempting to leave. Kenny wanted me all to himself. If he could not have me, then he wanted to kill me.

I am still here.