Research Reports

​Guns in Intimate-partner Violence

Guns in intimate-partner violence

Weapon use of any type by an intimate partner is associated with a wide range of violent offender behavior and multiple negative outcomes for victims. The lethality of firearms in situations of domestic violence is well documented, leading to a five fold increase in the likelihood that a woman will be killed when the abuser has access to a gun. Research by Sorenson demonstrates that the risk to victims also includes fear and intimidation. Sorenson found that while victims who had a gun used against them were less likely to have visible injuries compared to victims who reported the use of other weapons, like knives or bats, they were far more likely to experience high levels of fear.

Findings from “Guns in Intimate Partner Violence: Comparing Incidents by Type of Weapon"[1] by Susan Sorenson are reported in the Journal of Women’s Health. The study — conducted in Philadelphia in 2013 — examined forms police officers are required to file after intimate-partner violence calls. Of more than 35,000 such reports, 1,866 involved some type of weapon; 576 involved guns.

The study finds that abusers who use guns likely do so to intimidate their partners into staying in the relationship. Known as coercive control - a pattern of ongoing behavior used to dominate a partner - firearms appear to play a significant role in the ability of an abuser to maintain control over a partner.

The study also examines police response to domestic violence incidents. Police on the scene were about as likely to offer information on resources to victims whether a weapon was involved or not. However, if any weapon was used, officers were more likely to investigate. The chances that officers would help victims get medical treatment were highest if a weapon other than a gun was involved, reflecting the greater likelihood that victims suffered pain or visible injury in such cases. Police were far more likely to arrest an offender who used a weapon than one who did not.

Policy implications

Federal law prohibits abusers who have been convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors and abusers subject to certain domestic violence restraining orders from purchasing and possessing guns, and many states have expanded those restrictions to further protect victims and their families. Yet, few states have worked to comprehensively protect victims of domestic violence by prohibiting the purchase or possession of firearms by individuals convicted of violent misdemeanors regardless of the victim’s relationship to the offender; require the surrender of firearms or removal of firearms from domestic violence offenders; or require comprehensive reporting of offenders to the databases used for firearm purchaser background checks.

California, Connecticut, Hawaii, New York, and Pennsylvania require the surrender of firearms by every individual who has become ineligible to possess them, including those convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor or subject to a domestic violence protective order. Promising practice for the removal and retrieval of firearms from individuals subject to protective orders for domestic abuse has been explored in detail by Prosecutors Against Gun Violence and the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy in their report Firearm Removal/Retrieval in Cases of Domestic Violence. The report is a comprehensive roadmap for reducing the number of guns that are available in volatile and dangerous domestic violence situations.

Sorenson also notes that police and the medical community should be proactive in their response to domestic violence and be ready to provide victims with information about community resources, victim-assistance services and the process for seeking protection orders.

For more coverage of this study, see:

Recent research and updates:

[1] Sorenson, SB. J Womens Health (Larchmt). 2017 Mar;26(3):249-258. doi: 10.1089/jwh.2016.5832. Epub 2017 Jan 30.

About The Joyce Foundation

Joyce is a nonpartisan, private foundation that invests in evidence-informed public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region.

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