The use of a gun in intimate partner violence (IPV) leads to heightened fear, compliance, and chronic abuse, according to Guns in Intimate Partner Violence: Comparing Incidents by Type of Weapon, (26 JOURNAL OF WOMEN'S HEALTH 3 (2017)), a recent article published by Susan B. Sorenson, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania. The study analyzed 35,413 IPV incidents reported to the Philadelphia Police Department in 2013; approximately 23.8 percent of reported incidents involved a weapon.

Sorenson’s objective was to assess weapon use in IPV, as well as the enforcement of state law regarding gun removal. According to Sorenson, an estimated 4.5 million U.S. women alive today have been threatened with a gun held by their partner, and approximately 900,000 have been shot or shot at by an intimate partner.

Sorenson discovered that of the 23.8% of incidents involving weapons, 6,537 (18.6%) involved hands, fists, or feet; and 1,866 (5.3%) involved an external weapon. Of the latter, 576 (30.9%) were guns, meaning 1.6% of all incidents involved a gun. The 1,290 “nongun” external weapons included a variety of objects, including an ash tray, baseball bat, bleach, brick, cellphone, chair, knife, shoe, table leg, and umbrella.

In Sorenson’s research, the offender predominantly used a gun to intimidate a victim; according to the author, the offender shot the gun in about 1 in 10 (9.9%) of gun-involved incidents. Aggressive offender behavior was generally less common when a gun was used; offenders who used a nongun weapon or a bodily weapon were up to two times as likely to have punched the victim than when a gun was used. However, with the presence of a gun, the victim is more likely to be frightened.

“The presence of a gun might be associated with lesser injury than another weapon, but it portends ill for the woman,” Sorenson wrote. “Guns can facilitate a condition known as coercive control, in which an abuser dominates and intimidates his intimate partner.”

Sorenson concluded that preventative measures can be taken by the medical community, first responders, and through policy. While law restrictions may apply in certain states, physicians can potentially inquire about guns in the home when appropriate. Furthermore, law enforcement work can be a useful point of intervention and prevention, as 911 calls are generally placed long before there is a domestic violence restraining order or a domestic violence misdemeanor conviction. Finally, Sorenson argued it is crucial to encourage legislatures to extend firearm purchase and possession prohibitions to emergency restraining orders.

Above all else, though, professionals working with victims need to understand the nature of gun use in IPV.

“Medicine and public health focus primarily on physical injuries (both fatal and nonfatal) to document the nature and scope of gun violence,” Sorenson wrote. “Such a focus may need to be reconsidered if IPV is primarily a means to an end.”

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