Intimate Partner Violence and Firearms
Intimate partner violence is more likely to be lethal when abusers have access to guns
A firearm increases the likelihood that intimate partner violence will become deadly.
Each year, more than 10 million women and men — 20 people per minute — are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. Nearly one in four women and one in seven men will experience severe physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner in their lifetimes;1 a gun makes it much more likely that violence will turn deadly.2-4 The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends that clinicians screen all women of reproductive age for intimate partner violence (IPV).5 Clinicians should be prepared to discuss protective orders and the importance of removing a firearm from a violent situation.
Nearly half of female homicide victims in the US are killed by a current or former intimate partner,6 and half of those homicides are by firearm.4
Over one-third of Americans — more than 80 million people — experience IPV in their lifetimes, which includes contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking. Another 110 million experience verbal or emotional abuse by an intimate partner.1 Firearms play a significant role in IPV in the United States. When an abuser has access to a gun, the victim’s risk of homicide increases five-fold.2 Approximately 50% of reported intimate partner homicides are by firearm.4 Though females who are victimized by male partners may acquire firearms for protection against their partners, this ownership is not protective;2 research suggests females who purchase handguns stay at higher risk of firearm homicide for years following the purchase. One possible explanation for this increased risk is that these purchases increase abusers’ access to firearms.7
Nearly one in four women and one in seven men will experience severe physical violence at the hands of their intimate partner in their lifetimes.1
Guns are not only used as lethal weapons in intimate partner violence. They are also commonly used to coerce, threaten, and terrorize victims, resulting in lasting psychological damage. Research shows that about 4.5 million American women have had an intimate partner threaten them with a gun, and nearly 1 million American women alive today have been shot or shot at by an intimate partner.8 Those who have been threatened with a gun are also at higher risk of later being shot.
Who’s at Risk
Both men and women experience IPV, but women are more likely than men to be killed by intimate partners.8 Women and men who are younger, lower income, members of racial/ethnic minority groups, and/or live with disabilities are disproportionately at risk for IPV.1,6,9,10 The lifetime prevalence of IPV among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people is as high or higher than the US general population.11
Other risk factors for IPV victimization include past violent victimization, relationship strain, and substance misuse.12 Being threatened with a gun and/or threatened with death by a partner is a predictor of intimate partner homicide.2
What You Can Do
Clinicians are in a unique position to intervene and help a patient experiencing IPV, a major health problem for adults and children in the US. The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends that all women of reproductive age be screened for intimate partner violence and that those who screen positive be referred to support services.5 Physician responsibilities in cases of suspected IPV involving firearms are generally limited to screening, identification, mandatory reporting, counseling regarding risk factors, safety planning where appropriate, and engaging expert advocates when desired by the patient.13
Screening for intimate partner violence should include questions about firearms, including if there are firearms in the home or if the abuser has access to firearms. Screening is an opportunity to provide information on risks as well as a chance to obtain important health-related data to better assist patients. IPV screening can also help identify and prevent other adverse outcomes, including depression, anxiety disorders, risky substance use, and suicidality.5
In addition to screening, clinicians can provide information about the various types of civil protective orders that prohibit the potentially dangerous person from having contact with a potential victim and from purchasing or possessing firearms and ammunition. In California, clinicians cannot petition for protective orders on behalf of a patient, however, they should be aware of the types of orders available and be ready to discuss them with patients.
Domestic violence restraining orders (DVROs) in California are available to those at risk of IPV to protect against further abuse by initiating a firearm removal from an abuser and creating no-contact and stay-away provisions.14 Clinicians should consider, however, that some patients may not feel that restraining orders are the safest option: leaving an abusive relationship can inflame the situation, order durations are finite, and victims may face retaliation if their abusers discover plans to leave or to file a restraining order. Additionally, not all patients will trust that the courts or law enforcement will be protective. Some may prefer to find support through community-based service providers. Therefore, physicians are well-advised to rely on trained experts in IPV advocacy, particularly when designing exit plans or intervention strategies, and refer patients to programs such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline rather than give their own advice regarding legal courses of action.13
If the sole objective is to remove firearms from a dangerous situation, gun violence restraining orders (GVROs) prohibit firearm possession and purchase in California. However, unlike DVROs, these orders do not include no-contact or stay-away provisions.
Lisa Geller from the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence contributed to this content.
Click to view references
- The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010-2012 State Report. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Risk factors for femicide in abusive relationships: results from a multisite case control study. American Journal of Public Health.
- Risk Factors for Male Perpetration and Female Victimization of Intimate Partner Homicide: A Meta-Analysis. Trauma Violence Abuse.
- Risks and Targeted Interventions: Firearms in Intimate Partner Violence. Epidemiologic Reviews.
- Screening for Intimate Partner Violence, Elder Abuse, and Abuse of Vulnerable Adults: US Preventive Services Task Force Final Recommendation Statement. JAMA.
- Racial and Ethnic Differences in Homicides of Adult Women and the Role of Intimate Partner Violence — United States, 2003–2014. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
- Mortality among recent purchasers of handguns. New England Journal of Medicine.
- Nonfatal Gun Use in Intimate Partner Violence: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse.
- The association between disability and intimate partner violence in the United States. Annals of Epidemiology.
- Nonlethal intimate partner violence: examining race, gender, and income patterns. Violence and Victims.
- Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Abuse Among LGBT People: A Review of Existing Research. The Williams Institute.
- A Systematic Review of Risk Factors for Intimate Partner Violence. Partner Abuse.
- Understanding the Role of Law in Reducing Firearm Injury through Clinical Interventions. The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics : a journal of the American Society of Law, Medicine & Ethics.
Learn more about potential interventions
Protective orders can remove firearms from dangerous situations.
For more information, see these peer-reviewed articles.
Websdale, N., Ferraro, K., & Barger, S. D. (2019). The domestic violence fatality review clearinghouse: introduction to a new National Data System with a focus on firearms. Injury Epidemiology.
Zeoli, A. M., Frattaroli, S., Roskam, K., et al. (2019). Removing Firearms From Those Prohibited From Possession by Domestic Violence Restraining Orders: A Survey and Analysis of State Laws. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse.
Sorenson, S. B., & Schut, R. A. (2018). Nonfatal Gun Use in Intimate Partner Violence: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse.
Alvarez, C., Fedock, G., Grace, K. T., et al. (2016). Provider Screening and Counseling for Intimate Partner Violence: A Systematic Review of Practices and Influencing Factors. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse.
Zeoli, A. M., Malinski, R., & Turchan, B. (2016). Risks and Targeted Interventions: Firearms in Intimate Partner Violence. Epidemiologic Reviews.
Additional Resources on Firearms and Intimate Partner Violence
The National Domestic Violence Hotline
The National Domestic Violence Hotline operates 24/7 and free of charge to provide lifesaving tools and immediate support to enable victims to find safety. Callers to The Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) will receive crisis intervention information, educational services, and referral services in over 200 languages.
Disarm Domestic Violence California
Disarm Domestic Violence provides information on domestic violence firearm prohibitions and civil protective order firearm removal under California Law, as well as help resources for victims.
WEAVE is the primary provider of crisis intervention services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in Sacramento County.
Addressing Intimate Partner Violence Reproductive and Sexual Coercion
A guide addressing intimate partner violence for obstetric, gynecologic, and reproductive health care settings.
Intimate Partner Violence
Intimate partner violence screening tools and recommendations for clinicians.External Resource
Resources for Clinicians
Intimate partner violence resources for clinicians.