Guns and Domestic Violence—Surprising Findings



[Ed: Sorensen’s study has been trumpeted by anti-gun media for implying greater incidence of PTSD in domestic violence involving guns. But there is far more (and less) to these findings than that.]

Guns are almost never involved in incidents of Intimate Partner Violence (or “domestic violence” as more commonly termed). This is according to a new report, “Guns in Intimate Partner Violence: Comparing Incidents by Type of Weapon” by Susan Sorensen, PhD of the University of Pennsylvania. Using Philadelphia police filings during 2103 she found that of 35,413 incidents in only 1% was a gun observed at the scene.

Pointing as well to the rare appearance of firearms in IPV is the finding that victims in incidents involving a weapon other than a gun were much more likely to be injured or taken to the hospital as well as the finding that in only 17 cases out of the over 35,000 examined was someone actually shot. To put this in perspective, extrapolating from the average national violent crime rate suggests that in the year the study was done there were more than 9,000 violent crimes committed in Philadelphia. Compare this number to the 17 who were shot in domestic violence incidents.

Although she states that guns were “involved” in 1.6% of the incidents, she includes cases in which the perpetrator said something like, “I’m gonna shoot you,” but no weapon was apparent. Either way, it’s noteworthy that in only a very small percentage of cases did domestic violence incidents have anything to do with a firearm known to be present.

Dr. Sorensen’s access to all of the police reports from this extensive time period supports the accuracy of the data and the validity of the finding as to the exceedingly small role played by guns in domestic violence.  Her data showing a minor role for firearms were analyzed in several ways, including comparing cases where no weapon was involved, cases where a “weapon” such as a fist, teeth, and so on was used, cases where an “external weapon” (e.g. a knife) was involved, and cases where a gun was involved, although as noted above “involved” may mean that no gun was seen.

The main finding to her was that when a gun was “involved” in IPV, the victim felt more fear. But two much more significant findings that she did not emphasize were that “Aggressive offender behavior—pushing and shoving, grabbing, pulling hair, slapping, punching, kicking, biting, stabbing, and strangling—generally was more common when hands, fists, or feet or a nongun weapon rather than a gun was used, and, “victims against whom a gun was used were less likely to have visible physical injuries.” Both of these, of course, argue against the importance of guns in domestic violence incidents.

Although the issue was not addressed in the report, there are obviously many domestic violence incidents in which police are not called. It would be reasonable to assume that it’s the more serious events that result in a police response, and thus that the percentage of all incidents with a gun seen to be present is even lower than the 1% that the data suggest.

Surprisingly, only 5% of the perpetrators were said to be “under court supervision”. However, the author seems to include only those on probation or with outstanding warrants, thereby excluding parolees and those whose cases were adjourned in contemplation of dismissal. Presumably, if those under court supervision had been more closely supervised, the number of domestic violence incidents would have been fewer and incidents with a gun observed to be present fewer still.

The author expresses the belief that use of a gun elevates victims’ fears and heightens the degree to which they comply with perpetrators’ demands, but she produces to evidence to support this opinion.  Nor does she produce evidence that the use (or the threat) of firearms produces greater fear and compliance than do other acts by a perpetrator, such as delivering a beating.

In the paper’s abstract, she states that a goal of her work is to assess “compliance with related gun policies” and a focus of the discussion is law enforcement response in situations where a gun is reported to be involved. Oddly, given these concerns, she draws no distinction between guns legally and illegally possessed.

It seems probable that many, if not the majority, of guns involved in these incidents were not legally owned. Although she describes police responses of giving advice to victims, facilitating transport of the injured to hospitals and so on, there’s no mention of enforcing existing laws regarding the illegal possession of firearms. This has been an important priority of the National Rifle Association.

She opines, “Understanding the scope of gun possession by abusers might encourage some legislatures to extend firearm purchase and possession prohibitions to emergency restraining orders.” To contend that such measures (ignoring for a moment the Second Amendment) would aid victims of domestic abuse assumes that the weapons are legally owned. Illegal weapons, of course, could result in the immediate arrest and subsequent prosecution of the possessor without any new legislation.

She also states, ”Federal law (the 1994 Violence Against Women Act and the 1996 Lautenberg Amendment) prohibits persons under certain domestic violence restraining orders and persons convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor from purchasing and possessing firearms.” This raises again the issue of laws restraining only the law abiding; the availability of guns via extra-legal channels has often been noted.  In discussing domestic violence restraining orders, she observes, “Pennsylvania state law provides the courts discretion as to whether a firearms prohibition is imposed.“  This once again is a variation on a theme—those possessing a gun illegally aren’t apt to follow the courts’ guidance in such a matter.

The most meaningful results of this study demonstrate that guns “involved” in domestic violence are not nearly as harmful as supposed and, in fact, less so than use of any other weapons, including bare hands. But hearing of firearms more often in the hands of potential victims would be even more reassuring.


Tom E Gift, MD

—Thomas E. Gift, MD is a child and adolescent psychiatrist practicing in Rochester, New York, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical School, and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

All DRGO articles by Thomas E. Gift, MD.