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.
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
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.13 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.
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.