What is the role of firearms in nonfatal intimate partner violence? Findings from civil protective order case data

Soc Sci Med. 2021 Aug:283:114212. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2021.114212. Epub 2021 Jul 7.


Background: Perpetrators of intimate partner violence (IPV) use firearms to injure, scare, and manipulate their partners. Abusers who have a firearm in their homes are more likely to threaten and/or kill their partner. To date, however, limited research documents the nature of IPV perpetrator firearm access or the prevalence of nonfatal firearm abuse behaviors.

Methods: Federal law restricts firearm access for IPV perpetrators in qualifying domestic violence protective order (DVPO) cases and information about firearms should be disclosed during the DVPO process. We used secondary data from civil DVPO cases (n = 406) in North Carolina that were collected using a representative sampling strategy. Data were from DVPO case files and structured DVPO hearing observations. We conducted a content analysis to record IPV perpetrator access to guns and reported firearm abuse behaviors. We used a linear regression analysis to determine whether IPV perpetrator gun access was associated with higher levels of reported abuse. We also examined factors associated with perpetration of nonfatal firearm abuse.

Results: We found evidence of perpetrator firearm access in nearly half of all cases (46%, n = 108). Controlling for covariates, gun access was significantly associated with higher levels of reported IPV (b = 0.5, p < .001). Firearm abuse was reported in nearly one out of four cases (23.1%, n = 101), and often entailed spoken threats, displaying a gun, or holding a partner at gun point. The only factors associated with firearm abuse in the multivariate models were related to English language speaking/fluency.

Conclusions: Gun access should be considered an indicator for severe IPV. We must ensure that existing legal mechanisms to identify and restrict abuser access to firearms are fully implemented and enforced. Firearm abuse often manifests as non-physical coercive control which is traumatic and has the potential to escalate to homicide, even in the absence of past physical violence.

Keywords: Domestic violence; Firearm access; Firearm violence; Intimate partner violence; Protective order; United States.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Domestic Violence*
  • Firearms*
  • Homicide
  • Humans
  • Intimate Partner Violence*
  • Wounds, Gunshot*