Domestic Violence and Guns

Dr. Dana Hardy is leading our Mental Health outreach efforts for the Safe Tennessee Project. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. According to the Violence Policy Center, Tennessee is 9th in the nation for women murdered by men, most often with a firearm. Sadly, our state has consistently been in the top 10 states for women murdered by men.

Dr Hardy has provided us with an informative article discussing domestic violence and the risk guns play in those volatile intimate partner violence situations.

In the United States, an average of twenty persons every minute are physically abused by intimate partners (defined as spouses, ex-spouses, lovers, or ex-lovers). It is estimated that 90 to 95% of these victims are women. IPV (Intimate Partner Violence) is considered to be the leading cause of physical injuries to women. Indeed, according to The Center for Disease Control (CDC), one in three women will experience abuse in their lifetime. It is further estimated that between 12% and 60% of women will be abused by their husbands at some point in their marriage. Research demonstrates that when a firearm is used during an IPV incident, it increases the risk of the woman being killed by 500%.   Not surprisingly then, data shows that two-thirds of IPV homicides involve guns. In the United States, more women are killed by their intimate partners than by any other type of perpetrator.*


These statistics clearly illustrate that IPV is not only a grave social problem but that it is endemic. Yet, instead of this egregious data serving as a societal wake up call galvanizing us to take action, IPV remains a problem that is largely ignored. Indeed, victims of IPV are too often met with a lack of compassion, if not criticism. Further, a “blame the victim” mentality appears to persist as evidenced by the ubiquitous “why doesn’t she just leave?” Although there is not, of course, a single answer to this psychologically complex question, some of the reasons women stay include cultural or religious injunctions against leaving, financial dependency on the abusive partner, desire by the abused woman for their children to have two parents, fear that the partner will follow through with his threat to take their children, belief that the partner will change and lack of self worth. However, the number one reason abused women don’t leave appears to be fear that the violence will escalate and/or fear of reprisal. Tragically, this fear is not unfounded. In fact, research indicates that abused women are in the most danger when an attempt is made to leave. The dynamic similar to that present in the perpetrator who commits rape offers an explanation. IPV offenders, as is the case with rapists, use abuse to wield power and control over their victims. When abused victims leave, that power is compromised thereby rendering perpetrators powerless and often at loss of their identity. In a final effort to regain that power, perpetrators may adopt the stance” if I can’t have her, no one can” and make an attempt to kill their victims.

Given the potential peril of this period immediately after a break-up in the abusive situation, David Adams, author of Why Do They Kill? admonishes that finding ways to keep guns out of the hands of abusers must be our urgent priority. Adams, who is the co-founder of Emerge, an abuser intervention program, in writing the book, asked all of the men he interviewed who had killed their victims during an IPV incident, “Would you have killed her if you did not have a gun?” Chillingly, eight out of 14 replied “absolutely not.”

As grim as the facts are surrounding the physical danger inherent in IPV, to understand fully its impact, we must also realize the psychological damage inflicted on abuse victims. For instance, rates of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in victims of IPV are thought to be as high as 75%. Additionally, 50% of IPV victims with PTSD suffer from co-morbid Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). Both of these disorders have the potential of being very debilitating and of chronic duration. It is important to note here that in the latest edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the first criterion for PTSD stipulates the presence of exposure to actual or threatened death. Accordingly, the victim who has a gun held to her head as the abuser threatens to blow her brains out may be as traumatized as the victim whose abuser actually pulls the trigger, but the gun mis-fires.

Although the psychological effects of IPV can be extremely deleterious, effective treatment is available and recovery possible. But in order for more victims to feel comfortable in reaching out for help, as communities, we must work together to remove the stigma associated with IPV. Victims need to feel supported as they embrace the truth that they are in no way at blame for the actions of their perpetrators.

If you are currently in an abusive relationship or know someone who is or who is at risk, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE so that a safety plan can be established. We all deserve to regard our home as a sanctuary rather than a potential battlefield, or even worse, a killing field.

*Many of these statistics obtained from

American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.