August 27, 2021

According to a new study from UNC-Chapel Hill, gun use is common even in nonfatal reports of intimate partner violence (IPV) in North Carolina, indicating a need to further understand the ways that guns are accessed and legal strategies for restricting gun access among perpetrators of IPV.

Julie Kafka

Julie Kafka

Dr. Beth Moracco

Dr. Beth Moracco

The study, published in Social Science & Medicine, was led by a team of researchers in the Department of Health Behavior at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and the UNC Injury Prevention Research Center (IPRC). The authors are Julie Kafka, doctoral candidate in health behavior and IPRC Injury and Violence Prevention Fellow; Beth Moracco, PhD, associate professor of health behavior and associate director of IPRC; and Claire Hoffman, graduate research assistant at IPRC. Deanna Williams, health behavior alumna, also contributed to this study.

The researchers analyzed secondary data from the Courts Applying Solutions to End IPV (CASE IPV) study, which used a representative sample of 406 domestic violence protective order (DVPO) cases in N.C. They conducted a content analysis of case data and courtroom hearing observation notes to record IPV perpetrator access to guns and identify any reported firearm abuse behaviors. They then conducted a logistic regression analysis to determine whether IPV perpetrator gun access was associated with higher levels of reported physical, sexual and psychological abuse.

The study team found evidence of perpetrator firearm access in 46 percent of DVPO cases, which is much higher than what has been reported in previous studies. Gun access was strongly associated with higher levels of reported abuse, even after controlling for other factors, such as race/ethnicity, marital status and geographic location (urban/rural). Their findings suggest that in DVPO cases, perpetrator access to firearms should be considered an important indicator for severe IPV.

About a quarter of all cases (24 percent) included explicit descriptions of firearm abuse. Among these cases, spoken threats to harm a partner with a firearm were the most common type of firearm abuse (61 percent). Some cases described coercive suicide threats (24 percent) or spoken threats to harm family, friends or new intimate partners (12 percent).

This study suggests that perpetrator access to firearms is more prevalent than previously thought; past research found perpetrator firearm access in only 10-18 percent of restraining order cases. This research also reveals that firearm abuse commonly manifests as non-physical coercive control, which is traumatic and has the potential to escalate and cause serious harm, even in the absence of past physical violence.

According to Kafka, the lead author, “Our findings unequivocally show that both firearm access and firearm abuse behaviors are common for this population. It is important that the courts approach the issue of firearms and IPV very seriously, consistently and comprehensively given that danger that it poses to survivors, as well as their friends and family.”

There are already laws in place that can help facilitate restricting access to firearms by IPV perpetrators. For example, when a DVPO is issued, a judge can order the perpetrator to surrender their firearms to the sheriff. It will be important to ensure that these provisions are fully implemented and that there are sufficient mechanisms in place, such as comprehensive background checks, to keep abusive individuals from illegally accessing firearms.

According to the authors, their subsequent research will investigate the extent to which judges verbally ask about firearm access in DVPO cases. They will also examine the factors that influence whether judges ultimately grant DVPOs that restrict a perpetrator’s access to firearms.

If you or someone you know needs resources to help with intimate partner violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline phone number at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). For teletypewriter (TTY), the number is 1-800-787-3224. A chat function is also available on their website.

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