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Everytown Research & Policy

Dr. Jill Messing: Understanding Risk Factors for Intimate Partner Homicide

Safety in Numbers

Welcome to Everytown Research’s Safety in Numbers blog, where we invite leading experts in the growing field of gun violence prevention to present their innovative research in clear, user-friendly language. Our goal is to share the latest developments, answer important questions, and stimulate evidence-based conversations on a broad range of gun safety topics in a form that allows all of us to participate. If you have a topic you want to hear more about, please feel free to suggest it at: [email protected].

Sarah Burd-Sharps, Senior Director of Research

Note: The views, opinions, and content expressed in this product do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or policies of Everytown.

Jill Messing is a professor in the School of Social Work and the Director of the Office of Gender-based Violence at Arizona State University. She has been a principal researcher on the pioneering P.A.I.R. studies, a 6-state series on intimate partner homicide, to which Everytown has contributed funding.

Can you provide background on the P.A.I.R. studies?

We’re seeking to replicate and expand the landmark study by Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell, PhD, RN, FAAN, released in 2003, which is one of the most important studies in the field of domestic violence prevention and intervention. This research identified that gun ownership is the highest risk factor for intimate partner violence (IPV), with the odds of lethality increasing 540 percent when there is access to a gun. Based on this original study, Dr. Campbell developed “The Danger Assessment,” a groundbreaking tool that law enforcement, healthcare professionals, and domestic violence advocates have been using for more than 25 years to assess the risk of death in repeated intimate partner assaults. The goal of the P.A.I.R. studies is to update our understanding of risk factors for intimate partner homicide and to once again equip those in the field with the tools necessary to assess and intervene in the escalation of intimate partner abuse to intimate partner homicide. 

What are your new approaches in this study?

We’re looking at data from Arizona, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, Oregon, and Texas and conducting interviews with family members of homicide victims in all six states. Similar to the original research, our focus is on understanding the factors that increase the risk of intimate partner homicide by comparing homicide cases to instances where abuse did not escalate to death. Previous research has shown that factors such as owning a gun, having a history of strangulation, controlling behavior, and abuse during pregnancy, increase the risk for homicide.  

We’re now also considering the impact of technology-based abuse, such as stalking on social media or threats through text messages, which has evolved since the original research was conducted in the 90s. Our study examines relationships within the LGBTQ+ community and homicides that occur in suburban and rural areas, which the original study did not include. We’re not only exploring individual and relationship-specific risk factors, as in the original research, but we’re also delving into how state policies may influence domestic violence and intimate partner homicide by making comparisons between different states.

How is your research team examining intimate partner homicide and homicide-suicide cases within racial and ethnic groups or across different geographies?

There’s still a lot we don’t know in these important areas and we definitely need more research. Take the urban and rural divide, for example. Most studies on the risk factors of intimate partner homicide have focused on cities. We’re curious to see if these risk factors are the same in smaller towns or suburbs. We’re also trying to understand if there are differences for Indigenous communities, and early research suggests there might be unique factors for individuals not born in the US. 

When we think about risk assessment, it is very important that we aren’t incorporating risk factors that replicate structural inequalities present within our current systems. It is imperative, for example, that we are not relying on items such as criminal history to identify someone as high risk. Instead, we are focusing on behaviorally-based risk factors, like types of violence or abuse, to help understand risk present in a relationship. 

Another big part of our investigation is figuring out facilitators and barriers to help-seeking. To prevent domestic violence from escalating, we need to know when and how people are likely to reach out for support. We’re looking into whether worries about discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, or being part of the LGBTQ+ community are getting in the way of people seeking help.

Are there broad protective elements, similar to help-seeking behaviors, that apply to large segments of the population at risk of IPV?

In my research, I look into how the support people get from their families and communities can be protective. When I talk about “community,” I mean not just the neighborhood but also family, friends, professionals, and other connections. What are the things that we can do as a community or a society to help people who are facing domestic violence become safer? Getting support can really make a difference in reducing violence for individuals, so it is important that we understand pathways to this type of assistance. 

Another important aspect of this is figuring out how to help the individuals who are using violence in their relationships. This is perhaps one of the most impactful things that we can do to prevent homicides. I have also been working on helping young people identify and engage in healthy relationships. This can start really young by helping kids to understand how to have healthy friendships, and what the aspects of healthy relationships are – things like communication, safety, closeness, trust, and respect.

How do strategies for gun violence prevention and intimate partner homicide prevention dovetail?

It is well-established that gun ownership is a predictive risk factor for intimate partner homicide, but we do not know much beyond that. In order to help people be responsible gun owners, we need to better understand the nuanced aspects of gun ownership and their implications. Questions like, how does gun storage impact risk for homicide? Are guns stored loaded or unloaded? Locked in a safe or not locked in a safe? What state policies may help to reduce intimate partner homicides? By understanding how individuals can engage in responsible gun ownership by modifying things like firearm storage practices, we hope to decrease the likelihood that a firearm is used during impulsive moments and potentially reduce the risk of lethal domestic violence. This approach acknowledges the prevalence of firearm ownership throughout the country while working to mitigate the potential for misuse during violent episodes.

Along with identifying risk factors for intimate partner homicide, I’m deeply interested in how to prevent repeat abuse and severe violence. One component of this involves connecting survivors who are at high risk for homicide or severe violence with social service providers. This is typically achieved through the implementation of risk assessment at the scene of police-involved intimate partner violence incidents.

Within the criminal legal system, risk assessments–such as pretrial risk assessments–are typically geared toward determining the likelihood of a perpetrator failing to appear in court. I’m working to reformat these assessments with a focus on helping the courts to identify whether or not survivors are likely to achieve or maintain safety during the pretrial period. This way, we can make decisions that balance the safety of survivors and the rights of the accused. In some states with extreme risk laws, connecting assessments such as this with actions like temporary relinquishment of firearms could be helpful.

What are some next steps for your work?

We will continue analyzing data from the states in our study to gain insights into risk factors for intimate partner homicide and continue our interview process with the next of kin of homicide victims. We are committed to conducting focused research within various subgroups, encompassing racial/ethnic groups and sex and gender minorities, with the aim of identifying any distinct risk factors that may contribute to our overall understanding of this critical issue. If you or someone you know has lost a loved one to intimate partner homicide within one of our six states (Arizona, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, Oregon, Texas), please reach out ([email protected], 602-543-3316) to learn how you may be able to help.

Have you lost a loved one to homicide? Share your story and join the study.

About Dr. Jill Messing

Jill Theresa Messing, MSW, PhD is a Professor in the School of Social Work and the Director of the Office of Gender-Based Violence at Arizona State University. She specializes in studying domestic violence and intimate partner homicide. Her research focuses on understanding the escalation of domestic violence to homicide, with a focus on developing and testing intimate partner homicide prevention interventions.

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