Two days after the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, a Florida House panel held a hearing on a bill to allow employees to keep guns in their cars at work.
Among those weighing in was a lawyer named Shannon Goessling, who waved her concealed weapons permit and NRA membership card in the air as she told lawmakers they should focus on letting domestic violence victims pack heat instead.
“My best friend is my Glock,” Goessling announced, a local newspaper reported at the time.
She may have been voicing support for victims, but her passion for guns is one reason women’s groups are concerned about President Trump’s nominee for director of the Office of Violence Against Women.
The office oversees $450 million in funding for programs that support victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.
On the surface, Goessling’s résumé might seem to mesh well with the job description: After graduating from Emory Law, she spent eight years as a public prosecutor in her home state of Georgia. The White House press release announcing her nomination highlighted her time as the director of the county Crimes Against Women and Children Prosecution Unit in Atlanta, though as the Huffington Post later noted, she held the position for just nine months. In 2002, she ran for state attorney general on a platform of protecting women and children from violence.
But after losing the AG’s race to the incumbent Democrat, Thurbert Baker, Goessling’s career took a turn. She accepted a job as executive director of the Southern Legal Foundation, a conservative public interest law firm and policy center, and became a regular talking head on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show, appearing with Trumpworld figures like Kellyanne Conway.
On Fox and other news outlets, Goessling painted herself not as a women’s rights advocate but as a hard-charging crime-buster who championed the death penalty and rejected the idea of rehabilitation for drug offenders and youths.
“This system is not set up for rehabilitation,” Goessling told NPR in 2009. “It is set up for retribution and consequences.”
Her work at the Southern Legal Foundation was even more polarizing. In 2008, the foundation filed a lawsuit on behalf of ProEnglish—an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies as a hate group—to stop Alabama from giving written driver’s license exams in multiple languages.
In 2006, the foundation championed the case of Tony Vento, a South Philadelphia cheesesteak shop owner who posted a sign in his restaurant reading, “This is America. When ordering, please speak English.” (After his death in 2011, the restaurant put up a commemorative sign reading, “Joey Vento says: Press 1 for English, Press 2 for Deportation.”)
Goessling was an outspoken advocate for Vento both in court and out, accusing the government of spending a “tremendous amount of energy” to “silence” him, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. And it wasn’t the first time the foundation had taken such a case; a year earlier, it represented an Ohio bar owner cited by the local Civil Rights Commission for posting a sign that stated: “For Service, Speak English.”
Since Goessling’s nomination in June, a number of groups have expressed concern about her history of pursuing such cases, noting that the Office of Violence Against Women oversees several grants geared toward underserved racial and ethnic populations. LGBTQ groups took similar issue with a brief she filed in a U.S. Supreme Court case arguing for bans on same-sex marriage.
“Whoever runs this office really needs to understand that intimate partner violence requires an intersectional perspective,” Kristine Lucius, executive vice president for policy at The Leadership Conference, told The Daily Beast. “So we have serious concerns about her record, because in her record we see someone who is anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ and anti-racial justice.”
But the position that has earned Goessling the most criticism is her full-throated support of gun ownership, particularly as a remedy for violence against women. The year after her dramatic Florida House appearance, Goessling submitted an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that guns could help women against sexual violence. She cited a scholar who claimed women confronted with sexual assault were “significantly less likely to experience a completed rape if they resist with a weapon.”
The National Organization for Women, Feminist Majority Foundation, and women’s rights group UltraViolet all condemned Goessling’s position, urging members to call the Senate Judiciary Committee and oppose her nomination. They pointed to studies showing that female victims of attempted or completed crimes used guns to defend themselves less than 1 percent of the time, and that victims of domestic violence are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser has access to a firearm.
“Goessling’s position that guns protect women in domestic and sexual violence situations could not be further from the truth,” Feminist Majority Foundation President Ellie Smeal said in a statement. “Goessling’s severely flawed perspective essentially makes victims responsible for stopping their own sexual or physical assaults and threatens to hurt even more women, not protect them.”
Goessling did not return calls and emails seeking comment. It doesn’t appear she has publicly addressed the criticism; her Twitter account is protected.
A hearing date has not been set. In fact, Congress has yet to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which formalizes funding for the office every five years and expired in December.
But one former client is eager to see Goessling confirmed. In 2015, the lawyer helped fellow Georgia native Bundy Cobb secure an apology from the Douglas County Board of Elections after they required him to remove his “NRA instructor” hat before voting. (Officials originally said they felt the hat constituted campaign material, which is not allowed within 150 feet of polling places.)
Reached by phone this week, Cobb told The Daily Beast Goessling was an “honest and hardworking girl,” and that her views on gun rights would not affect her work as director.
“She always is pushing to do the right thing to help the people that are having issues with larger organizations or things like that,” Cobb said. “She’s a person that works for the common people.”