How a Mom Who Lost Daughter to Domestic Violence Honors Her Memory by Working to Save Lives

Sarah Browder was murdered in 2012 by her husband, who then turned the gun on himself

Susan and Sarah Browder
Sarah and Susan Browder. Photo: Susan Browder

Sarah Browder and her husband had a whirlwind courtship when they were dating.

"She met him and he just swept her off her feet," her mother, Susan Browder, 74, of Florida, tells PEOPLE.

Soon after Sarah and her husband, Camp Lejeune Marine Pfc. Kirk Harris, wed in 2011, their relationship took a dangerous turn. "The dynamics changed rapidly," her mother says.

Harris became "less loving and generous" and "more controlling and unkind," says Browder, who adds, "He told her what he wanted her to wear."

Jealous of Sarah's male friends, Harris made Sarah "remove every man from her contacts," says Browder.

Sarah urged Harris to go to counseling, but he refused, says Browder. "He was getting some sort of anger management [counseling] through the Marines on base because there had been some problems there," says Browder. "So we thought, 'Okay, they're trying to deal with this.'"

But the relationship continued to sour, and Sarah took steps to get away from Harris.

But that was not to be.

On Sept. 23, 2012, "Sarah's controlling husband tried to prevent her from leaving an abusive marriage, and he was not going to let that happen," says Browder.

"He raised his handgun and put one bullet through her spine and another through her shoulder as she was fleeing."

Harris, 26, then turned the gun on himself and died by suicide nearby in his parents' front yard.

For four days, Sarah was in the intensive care unit — "unable to speak, move, or breathe on her own," says Browder.

The 29-year-old died on Sept. 27, 2012.

This October — which is national Domestic Violence Awareness Month — Browder is raising awareness about the prevalence of domestic violence-related shootings.

As a member of the Everytown Survivor Network, which is part of the gun-violence prevention organization Everytown for Gun Safety and its grassroots networks, Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action, Browder is "fighting forcommon sense methods of preventing intimate partner violence," she says.

Research shows that the presence of a gun in a home makes it five times more likely that an abuser will kill his female victim, according to Everytown.

"I know what it means to have someone taken by domestic gun violence," she says. "It's extremely important to make sure we're closing dangerous loopholes and keeping guns out of the hands of people like the man who killed her.

"I am absolutely convinced that lives will be saved if we can do that."

Warning Signs

Though her daughter died nine years ago, Browder thinks about her every single day. "She was funny, clever and artistic," she says. "She was beautiful and she was very affectionate. And she was stolen from us."

Since her daughter's murder, Browder and her family have learned a lot more about domestic violence.

For one partner to rush the relationship, which Harris did with Sarah, "is a dangerous sign," she says.

So was the controlling behavior he showed toward her.

But, as often happens with victims of domestic violence, Saray didn't say much about it, Browder says.

"We were aware that there were some problems we thought they were 'working on,'" says Browder. "But that was before we learned so much about the dynamics of domestic abuse. He was a Marine and we knew that he had a gun and that he wasn't always appropriate with where he carried it, in our opinion.

"But we didn't think of him as a potential murderer."

Call for Senate to Renew Domestic Violence Law

Every month, 57 women in the U.S. are fatally shot by intimate partners, and nearly 1 million women alive today in the U.S. have been shot or shot at by an intimate partner, according to research from Everytown, Moms Demand Action, and Students Demand Action.

Besides that, more than 4.5 million women in the U.S. reported being threatened with a gun by an intimate partner.

There are even higher rates of intimate partner violence and gun homicide against women of color, according to Everytown, Moms Demand Action, and Students Demand Action.

"We know that domestic violence and gun violence are deeply connected," Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts says in a statement.

"This Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we stand alongside survivors in calling on lawmakers to take action on common-sense methods to protect victims and survivors of domestic violence," she says.

"It's time for the Senate to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which polling shows 90% of people in the U.S. support," she said.

The landmark law, signed in 1994 to help combat domestic violence, expired in 2019. A renewal of the law has passed the House of Representatives, but some Senate Republicans have objected to provisions in the bill that would restrict access to guns for domestic abusers, reports The New York Times.

This October, Everytown for Gun Safety is working to prevent domestic violence-related shootings by trying to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, closing loopholes in gun-violence prevention laws and increasing access to services and trained advocates.

Survivors can also turn to the Everytown Survivor Network and Moments that Survive to talk to – and support – each other.

In a guest column Browder wrote for the Winston-Salem Journal in 2013, she said she is grateful that her daughter's "life on this earth still has purpose."

"Awareness has been raised and lives are being saved," she wrote.

For more information on gun-related domestic violence, please visit EverytownResearch.org.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. If you are experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or go to thehotline.org. All calls are toll-free and confidential. The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 170 languages.

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