Gun Violence: The Importance of Including Intimate Partner Homicide

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Author: Sarita Lee

Contributors: Meredith Steinberg and Isabella Poschl

Introduction

Gun violence is a global health issue that is particularly pressing in the United States. Intimate partner homicide (IPH) is a type of gun violence that can be overlooked for a multitude of reasons. Fully addressing IPH requires a deep understanding of complex interpersonal dynamics and legal systems, including intimate partner violence (IPV). This literature review details the prevalence of gun violence, IPH, and IPV in the United States. Next, it specifies how the topics are related and barriers to public awareness. Lastly, several policy recommendations for making intimate partner homicide informed policy are presented.

Legal Background

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was a federal law first passed in 1994 that allocated funding to investigating and prosecuting crimes affecting women, specifically sexual violence. Reauthorization is required every few years to continue the allocation of funds for services. The different reauthorizations over the years have expanded its reach to better address the needs of specific issues and populations, such as protections for those who are under tribal jurisdictions, as well as disabled, undocumented, or same-sex couples.

In 2019, VAWA is up for reauthorization till 2024 with new provisions that would prevent those who have been convicted of abusing, assaulting, or stalking a current or former partner from buying or owning a firearm. It would also provide funding for other work including trauma-informed training for law enforcement, authorizing and improving related data collection, and addressing specific protections for those who identify as transgender.

The legal protections defined under VAWA will still hold with or without the reauthorization because these have been written into law. The reauthorization addresses the funding for the programs established by VAWA. The current programs are still able to run for a limited amount of time, but if enough years pass without reauthorization, the funding will eventually run out (1). Currently, the reauthorization has been passed by the House of Representatives, but not by the Senate (2).

The Issue of Gun Violence

In the United States (US), gun violence (GV) has become a top current public health and safety crisis (3). This is not a new finding as research on the issue consistently shows that the problem of GV is extremely large in the US, even when compared to similar countries. For example, the 2016 gun death rate in the US is 10.6 per 100,000 where, it was 2.1 people in Canada and 1.0 people in Australia (4). Women in the US are victims of firearm deaths at rates 21 times higher than other countries with similar income levels. IPV, specifically intimates partner homicide, and plays a large role in these high death numbers (5).

The Issue of Intimate Partner Homicide.

IPH is the intentional killing of another person that is committed by a current or past intimate partner. An intimate partner is defined as a spouse or dating partner.

Every year in the US, about 600 women are victims of IPH (6). Findings show that out of all homicide victims in the US who are female, about half of them are killed by an intimate partner (7). There are also racial disparities among victims of IPH. For example, the rates of IPH are twice as high in black women than white women (6).

The effect of IPV extends further affecting those surrounding the situation, so called corollary victims. One study on all IPV-related homicides shows that about 20% of the victims were corollary victims; they included family members, new intimate partners, friends, neighbors, police officers, or others who intervened (8). Another study, specifically on mass shootings (where four or more people other than the shooter are killed), showed that 80% of all children killed in mass shootings between 2009 and 2018 were shot in incidents that were tied to IPV.

IPH can be the fatal outcome of IPV, which is defined by the World Health Organization as: “… any behavior within an intimate relationship that causes physical, psychological or sexual harm to those in the relationship, including acts of physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviors” (9).

Many studies show that previous or current IPV is the major risk factor associated with IPH (10) (11). It is important, however, to determine the situations, behaviors, and events that are the specific risk factors for IPH. Strong risk factors for IPH perpetrated by a male include the perpetrator’s access to a weapon, making threats with a weapon, non-fatal strangulation, rape of the victim, as well as controlling and stalking behaviors (11). Major risk factors for a female being a victim of IPH include perpetrator abuse of the victim during pregnancy, substance abuse by the victim, the victim having less than a high school education, the victim separating from the perpetrator, and the victim having children from a previous relationship (11). It is important to note that compared to women who were not abused during pregnancy, attempted or completed femicide (homicide of females) victims who were abused during pregnancy reported significantly higher levels of violence (12).

The Specific Role Guns Have in Intimate Partner Homicide.

In the United States, a gun is used as the weapon of IPH at rates higher than any other means. More than 50% of women killed by an intimate partner are killed with firearms. This is the case now and has been for several years, according to multiple studies. More specifically within the types of guns, handguns are the most commonly used (13) (14) (15).

Guns themselves do not cause IPV or IPH inherently; the ultimate responsibility fundamentally lies on the perpetrator of the violence. However, the presence of a gun does change the power dynamic of a situation. In situations where perpetrators of IPV have access to guns, the rates of IPH in those who are victims of IPV are 5 times higher than the situations where perpetrators of IPV did not have access to firearms (16).

When We Hear about Gun Violence in General, Why Don’t We Hear about Intimate Partner Homicide?

It does not seem to be common to hear about IPH and IPV in DV discussions. Not all gun-related incidents make major headlines and, generally, when we do hear about GV in the news it is about the number of deaths in mass-casualty events. About half of all mass-casualty events, however, also involve the death of an intimate partner or family member of the perpetrator (17). Having such a frequent association between IPH and GV, but not necessarily hearing about it, prompts the larger question of barriers to including IPV in addition to IPH in the conversation.

There are barriers to understanding IPH and IPV for several reasons which, in turn, makes reporting about the scope of the issues difficult. There are many intertwined reasons for this, including barriers to research, barriers to reporting, and stigma. First and foremost, one common way of studying the rates of homicide is through death certificates. Researchers can measure the number of homicides in death certificates that are classified as spousal homicides. However, gaining a consistent idea of the true number of spousal homicides and trends over time faces complications because the definition of spousal homicide has changed over the years. Moreover, the number or rates of spousal homicides cannot be used necessarily to claim anything about IPH; spousal homicide is homicide by a legally-recognized spouse and this definition does not include other intimate partners, such as dating partners. One example of this issue can be seen by a study done in California: from 1990 to 1992, where there were 1,192 spousal homicides in California. When researchers studied IPH by including ex-spouses and current or former other intimate partners, the number of intimate partner homicides was 2,313 – nearly double (14). With this in mind, the true scope of IPH is not well known.

Until recently, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the national public health agency in the US, has been prohibited from researching GV because of the Dickey Amendment. In 1993, a study done by the CDC noted that guns in homes were associated with higher rates of homicide in the homes. In response, the National Rifle Association (NRA) successfully lobbied for the Dickey Amendment and, in 1996, ended the funding available to the CDC for research on GV. Even though a new agreement was made and signed in 2018, there is still unclear language on what the CDC is allowed to do or say since it is still prohibited for the CDC to promote or advocate for gun control (18) (19). Even issues that have an extremely high prevalence of guns as the weapon, like suicide for example, the CDC uses the term “lethal methods” without specifically mentioning the words “firearms” or “guns”, which would be legally questionable with the current policy (20). Being able to understand the public health role that guns have in IPH and IPV has been extremely stunted, if not completely halted, by ending CDC funding for GV research.

Underreporting of IPV occurs for many reasons from all aspects of the situation. For example, reporting their situation may actually put a victim of IPV at an even higher risk of danger, or even death. Moreover, the way the reporting process is conducted may bring further distress to the victim. Overall, the lack of knowledge about existing cases of IPV means that it is difficult to understand the depths and complexities of the issue.

Stigma is a mark of disgrace that sets someone or a group of people apart from others, and further compounds the barriers to victims reporting IPV cases or generally seeking help (21). The underreporting issue is indicative of underlying systemic and social issues that should be addressed because those who are or who have experienced IPV should have the option to report or talk about what is or has happened. It may be because of all of these reasons that when we hear about GV that we do not hear about the larger IPV context surrounding the incident, even though so many acts of GV are actually tied to an IPV situation. Since IPV can lead to IPH, specific IPV-informed policy changes can be made to protect IPV victims and those surrounding them.

How can we Improve How Intimate Partner Homicide is Included in Gun Violence Policy?

There are many policy changes that can be made to better understand how IPH and IPV and GV are all tied together, the prevalence of the issues, and protect those who are in imminent or potential danger of GV due to their IPV situations.

First, remove the barriers to federally-funded GV research, especially the ones placed on the CDC and the National Institute of Health (NIH) through the Dickey Amendment that essentially halted GV research and GV recommendations from a public health perspective. The effect of this lack of funding extends to the university level as well. Federal funding is what supports doctoral students and postdocs. Without federal funding there remains a glaring gap in general GV and GV policy research that would move the field forward (22).

Other organizations, like nonprofits, do have the ability to do research on GV, but being a part of a national initiative means more consistent access to crucial, national GV data from law enforcement or other official agencies (23). In addition, national institutes have the ability to host centralized collections of data and distribute it to other interested organizations (22). Removing barriers to research means removing the legal restrictions and providing adequate funding to make the research possible. Lifting the restrictions is not enough without funding. To fully understand GV in the US, the restrictions on federal GV research need to be removed and research needs to be supported with adequate funding.

Second, it is possible in the US to buy a gun legally without passing a background check, leaving a lack of knowledge about who is purchasing guns and leaving a gap for those who would not have passed the background check to buy a gun.  It is estimated that 22% of gun owners got their most recent gun without going through a background check (24). There are several ways that someone can purchase a gun legally without having a background check done. Licensed gun dealers have to perform background checks, but unlicensed – private – sellers do not have to perform a background check on the buyer. Sales of guns from one private citizen to another do not require background checks nor do gun shows. This is the underlying reason for the online gun marketplace and the “gun show loophole”. Private sellers can have a booth at a gun show in a format similar to a flea-market where the selling and buying occurs legally without a background check or any information about the buyer (25).

Third, when guns are obtained with the background check process, the background check itself is not comprehensive. One specific issue is commonly referred to as the “boyfriend loophole.” Not all types of domestic violence (DV) are included in the background checks. Only those who have a DV restraining order against them who are current or former spouses, co-habitants, parent/ guardian, or had a child with the victim will not pass the background check. Those with DV restraining orders who are current or former intimate partners can still pass the background check and legally obtain a gun. Twenty-three states have legally addressed this loophole (26). There is demonstrated need to expand the gun restrictions to those who have a DV restraining order against them by someone who is a current or former intimate partner.

Fourth, there is no federal process for what happens to the gun(s) when someone who already owns a gun(s) later has a DV restraining order filed against them. There are some states that have laws addressing this, but not all do and this leaves a protection gap for victims of IPV whose perpetrators already own guns. Obtaining a DV restraining order against their perpetrator does not necessarily mean that the perpetrator will no longer have their gun(s) and the victim may still be in danger (27).

Fifth, the GV policies do not include types of DV restraining orders that are issued ex parte. Ex parte is a legal term and in the context of the US legal system. It describes a legal decision made within the interest of one party without notifying or having representation of the other party. This means that ex parte DV restraining orders can be made against a perpetrator without notifying them beforehand and without having their representation in court. Ex parte DV restraining orders are specifically designed to protect those who have filed for a DV restraining order and are in demonstrated, imminent danger. There is generally a gap of a few days to a few weeks between when someone initially files for a DV restraining order and when the court hearing actually occurs. The ex parte DV restraining orders are designed to protect victims in that time period.

There are varying laws for different states, but these laws are commonly in the form of emergency protective orders (EPO) and/or temporary restraining orders (TRO). The federal gun laws and restrictions do not apply to EPOs and TROs, the ex parte DV restraining orders. They apply specifically to the DV restraining order issued after the court hearing, commonly referred to as the “permanent” DV restraining order. The permanent DV restraining order is not automatically permanent. It initially lasts up to five years and then there is the option to file for it to be extended for a certain number of years or permanently depending on the situation. Gun ownership restrictions should also include ex parte DV restraining orders especially given that these are only issued in cases where the victim is in demonstrated imminent danger (28).

All of the points above about background checks rely on the underlying ability to obtain a DV restraining order. Including the check for DV restraining orders in gun background checks is only helpful if those experiencing DV and IPV are able to seek out and go through with obtaining a DV restraining order. To fully address protecting those who are experiencing DV or IPV, which is the intention of including it in the background check, it is also necessary to address issues with the DV restraining order process. In making the DV restraining order process one that anyone can go though, it is also crucial to knowing and be highly informed of the intersections of IPV with many other factors, including but not limited to gender and race  as well a level of education. Addressing the specific difficulties that certain populations face will lead to better-informed policy for all people.

Conclusion

An important component of gun violence that is specifically overlooked from the work around gun violence is intimate partner homicide. Intimate partner homicide can be the grave outcome of the more general issues of intimate partner violence and domestic violence. Including intimate partner homicide and its prevention in our research, policy decisions, conversations, and general awareness is critical in fully addressing the issue of gun violence in the United States.

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