Safety in Numbers
Welcome to Everytown Research & Policy’s Safety in Numbers blog series, where we will invite leading experts in the growing field of injury and safety prevention to present their rigorous research in clear, user-friendly language on a regular basis. Our goal is to share the latest developments, answer important questions, and stimulate evidence-based conversations on gun violence prevention in which all of us can participate. If you have a topic you want to hear more about, please feel free to suggest it at: [email protected].
Sarah Burd-Sharps, Director of Research
Note: The views, opinions, and content expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or policies of Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund.
The combination of guns and domestic violence can be fatal. The majority of intimate partner gun homicide victims are women. And we know that there are often warning signs—when women are killed by an intimate partner, it is likely that the partner who killed them had abused the victim beforehand. Understanding the risks for intimate partner gun homicide can help prevent it. Researchers Drs. Jacquelyn Campbell, Jill Messing, and Jesenia Pizarro have dedicated their research to this important topic. Their current work, including an Everytown Support Fund-funded study, aims to replicate an innovative study that Dr. Campbell conducted in the late 1990s and improve understanding about the role of firearms in intimate partner homicide.
“Ultimately, our goal is to save lives,” Dr. Messing said. “Research studies such as this one will help us to better understand the risk factors for homicide, and then we have to consider how to develop interventions that reduce those risk factors and, ultimately, that reduce intimate partner violence and homicide.”
In this Q&A, lead researchers, Drs. Jacquelyn Campbell, Jill Messing, and Jesenia Pizarro, share their findings on intimate partner homicide.
Why is studying intimate partner violence important?
Understanding the risk factors for intimate partner homicide related to guns is incredibly important for gun violence prevention efforts. Gun ownership is a strong risk factor for somebody killing their partner, especially for men killing women. This is true based mostly on research among Black, Latina, and white populations, but we don’t know the impact it has among indigenous populations or those in the LGBTQ community. Part of our research goals are to involve these populations.
Then, you have to think: “What is it about guns? Is it owning multiple guns? Is it one type of gun or different types of guns? Are the guns stored securely?” This is important for developing policies. We have to look at how guns are stored, whether a gun was right there, easily accessible for someone to pick up and use. So there are multiple parts of gun ownership that are important to uncover for this work.
This line of work is especially important in order to understand the risk factors present in a relationship and to create risk assessments. Dr. Campbell created the influential Danger Assessment 20 years ago, and it is very important to update it to understand contemporary risk factors for homicide. Understanding risk factors for homicide provides the information needed to develop and implement interventions that are risk-informed. If we can get a good sense of what those risk factors are, we can use that information to create and differentiate interventions for survivors who are at high risk, which will help us prevent intimate partner homicide.
What role do guns play in intimate partner homicide?
We know that guns are a crime facilitator, and generally, as a crime facilitator, guns make the commission of a crime easier. We know that, on average, when offenders are considering committing a crime, they’re usually contemplating crimes that are easier, require less effort, and also reduce the risk of apprehension. So firearms as a whole make it easier for offenders to act. With intimate partner homicide and suicide, we know that when you have a gun, you are more likely to use it. In a crime of passion, even when you are not planning to use it, simply having a gun makes it easier for offenders to act. Some offenders are so motivated that they will find other means, but the average offender is not going to go out of their way, so having a gun readily available increases the risk that the offender will engage in the lethal act.
When I created the Danger Assessment, we found that if an abuser used a gun in the incident, it increased the likelihood of death by 24 times. So often when I examine homicide records, there would have been a domestic violence incident, but no one would have died if the gun had not been right there, able to be picked up in anger. In homicide-suicides (i.e., when a person kills one or more people before killing themself), the National Violent Death Reporting System data tells us that about 90 percent of the domestic violence homicide-suicides are with a gun. Clearly for the homicide-suicides, as is also the case for suicides, the gun is a really important part of an impulsive act rather than one that is highly premeditated.
How can intimate partner homicide research be used by the prevention community?
Intimate partner homicide is one of the homicide subtypes where there are red flags of potential danger prior to the lethal event, and because of that, there is a great opportunity for prevention. Unlike homicides through robbery, which tend to be random, there are avenues that we can use to intervene to prevent the occurrence of the lethal event in intimate partner homicides.
One prevention strategy is examining the laws that apply to states in domestic violence situations. Some important questions to ask are:
- How strong are the laws?
- Are the laws being implemented in the jurisdiction where the homicide occurs?
- How are the laws being implemented?
This information will help lawmakers at the state and federal levels to fine-tune laws and help those laws become more preventative.
Being able to look across multiple pairs of states is very important in terms of gun laws, policies, and how they are implemented. And because we are looking at entire states, it gives us an opportunity to look at urban and rural areas as well, which can give us insight to varying communities. The states we’re focusing on include:
- New Jersey and Arizona (funded by Everytown Support Fund)
- Missouri and Oregon (funded by National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research)
- Texas and Maryland (funded by National Institutes of Health)
What research gaps do your forthcoming studies hope to fill?
We need to be looking at the nature and context of intimate partner homicides and intimate partner homicide-suicides across various subgroups we haven’t looked at before. We have more information about risk factors now than we did 20 years ago, but we need a more systematic examination of homicide risk. For example, when the previous research was done, there wasn’t the same social media- or technology-facilitated abuse so we need to look at the new ways that people can follow and stalk their partners.
Is there anything else you would like to share about your work or gun violence prevention in general?
Looking at these homicides in context is what is going to give us better intervention policies. We know that policies and strategies that work at reducing crime are tailored to specific contexts and situations. There is not a one size fits all strategy. We know that when interventions are translated exactly the same way in different contexts, they don’t work at all. I think it is important to look at the context and realize that we are not able to come up with a one size fits all approach but can approximate that by creating and advancing strategies that fit specific situations.
Support for those in crisis
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, available 24/7, for confidential assistance from a trained advocate. You can also find more resources on legal assistance in English and Spanish at WomensLaw.org. For additional resources on emotional, medical, financial, and legal consequences of gun violence for individuals and communities, please visit Everytown’s Resources page.
About Drs. Campbell, Messing, and Pizarro
Jacquelyn Campbell, PhD, MSN, RN is the Anna D. Wolf Chair and Professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing. Dr. Campbell’s research has concentrated on the health outcomes of domestic violence, including homicide and the risk factors for intimate partner homicide, including gun ownership.
Jill Theresa Messing
Jill Theresa Messing, PhD, MSW is a Professor in the School of Social Work and the Director of the Office of Gender-Based Violence at Arizona State University. Dr. Messing specializes in the development and testing of intimate partner violence risk assessments, and is particularly interested in the use of risk assessment in collaborative, innovative interventions and as a strategy for reducing intimate partner homicide.
Jesenia Pizarro, PhD is an Associate Professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. Her research focuses on the importance of understanding the proximal event and situational factors that result in violence (i.e., the who, where, when, and why), and the effect the situational context of violent events has on the social reaction of practitioners and other social actors.