Giving a gun to a woman who has been abused and expecting her to use it against a man who she probably still loves isn’t a good bet. But that’s exactly what is advocated by both Shannon Goessling, President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Office of Violence Against Women and, most recently, the National Rifle Association.
On Thursday, the House voted to reauthorize an updated Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in defiance of the NRA. As the fight heads to the Senate, it’s more important than ever to debunk these kinds of misperceptions about intimate partner violence. This is one of those instances when the stakes can literally be life or death.
When thinking about firearms and intimate partner violence, at least two things are at play — fear and risk. Sometimes fear can be enjoyable, as we know from compelling horror movies. When nothing real is at risk, a two-hour stretch of tension-filled anticipation can be fun. And some horror movies — think Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and “Us” — are framed in a social context that evokes a lively conversation and analysis.
When thinking about firearms and intimate partner violence, at least two things are at play — fear and risk.
We need more than a lively conversation and analysis when it comes to abuse and firearms.
Tucked into many health care intake forms these days, somewhere between queries about one’s history of heart disease and weekly alcohol consumption, is a question about whether a patient feels safe at home. A physician friend relayed the response of one patient: He beats me only once a year, but the other 364 days, I live in fear that today will be the day.
That sort of fear is accompanied by ongoing alertness, heightened sensitivity to sights and sounds, the release of cortisol that can lead to increased heart rate and blood pressure, and other signs of chronic stress. Such fear is neither fun nor good for one’s health.
Now imagine that fear when the abuser has access to a gun. Although the immediate concern here is whether victims of intimate partner violence should be armed, there is virtually no credible research on the question. But we know a fair amount about the consequences when the abuser is armed.
Our recent research, based on tens of thousands of Philadelphia Police Department reports of intimate partner violence, found that a great majority of the incidents involving a gun were male-on-female. Also, fear was far more common when a gun was (versus was not) used. Such fear shows good judgment.
Guns and male intimates figure prominently in the murder of women. For the past 40 years, FBI homicide data document that women are more than twice as likely to be shot and killed by a male intimate than shot, stabbed, strangled, beaten to death, or killed in any other way by a stranger. The “vicious male predators” referenced by NRA surrogates and Shannon Goessling are, in reality, current and former boyfriends and husbands with guns.
Some of these killings are impulsive, but most follow a history of abuse. The best research to date, published in 2003, indicates that women who have been abused by their partner are five times as likely to be killed by that partner if he has access to a gun.
The best research to date indicates that women who have been abused by their partner are five times as likely to be killed by that partner if he has access to a gun.
Our 2006 study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, documented that 85 percent of the 417 women residing in California battered women’s shelters did not feel safer when there was a gun in the home. They might not have felt safer because in two thirds of the homes with a gun, the male partner had used the gun against the woman, most commonly to threaten her. Only a handful of the women in the study reported that they had used the gun to scare, run off, or threaten their abuser.
Are women who obtain a gun after being abused safer from their intimate partner than those who don’t get a gun? We don’t know — there hasn’t been systematic research on the topic. This is one of many such questions that could be addressed with adequate federal funding of research on firearms.
What we do know is that, generally speaking, guns have not protected women from abusers nearly as often as they have been used by abusers. The Violence Against Women Act helps protect women in a variety of ways, including making it harder for abusive partners and stalkers to obtain a gun. One step forward is extending the firearm provisions to include current and former boyfriends.
Where Shannon Goessling stands on the Violence Against Women Act as well as the broader question of guns and domestic violence is open to question. In 2008, Goessling filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that women would be safer if they have a gun. Whether she now acknowledges that the person who is most likely to assault a woman is a man she at least at one time loved, whether she is aware of the multiple research studies that have been published since the 30-year-old study she cited, and whether she has shifted her opinion in the face of new information are questions for the Senators who will conduct her confirmation hearing, if one is held.
Given what we know about the consequences when an abusive intimate partner is armed, it is irresponsible to assume that adding a gun to an already volatile situation will make the victim less fearful and more safe.