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Women are less likely to be injured when a gun is involved in intimate partner violence.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney's Office via Wikimedia Commons

The invisible problem in gun violence research

BOSTON—What happens when guns are present at the scene of domestic disputes—but not fired? It’s a slice of gun research that’s “largely invisible,” says Susan Sorenson, a public health professor at University of Pennsylvania who specializes in gun violence. In a session here Friday at the annual meeting of AAAS, which publishes Science, she argued that—because medicine, public health, and law enforcement usually focus on physical injury—researchers are missing the psychological impacts of so-called nonfatal gun use. Sorenson sat down with Science to discuss her latest study and broader challenges to the field of gun research. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 
Q: What is the relationship between guns and intimate partner violence?
A: In 2013, there were over 137,867 calls to the Philadelphia [Pennsylvania,] police department for domestic violence assistance, which is a remarkable number in a population of 1.5 million. Of that, 35,413 incidents were between intimate partners, but only 576 involved a gun. We found that most of the incidents were verbal-only in nature. When there was a weapon used, it was most often a bodily weapon—hands, fists, or feet. When an external weapon was used, a third of the time it was a gun, and the remainder it was essentially whatever was within reach—a knife, a bat, ashtrays, you name it. The offenders were less likely to punch or kick the victim when a gun was involved. In other words, the victim was less likely to be injured when a gun was involved. 

Gun violence expert Susan Sorenson.

Connor Augustine

Q: What are the psychological impacts of these types of incidents?

A: About 69% of the time, guns were used as a method for intimidation. We found that fear is substantially higher when a gun is used to threaten a victim. When establishing credibility in a police report, fear is important to record in the absence of physical injury. Medicine, public health, and law enforcement usually focus on physical injury, so data on guns as threats have been largely invisible in those fields. 
Gun use contributes to a circumstance that is called coercive control. Coercive control is at the heart of battering. If coercive control is present in a violent relationship, [methods of coercion] like psychological manipulation, limiting access to others, limiting movement, denigration, insults, and belittling all cause the woman’s worldview to shift to some degree. So if [the offender] were to hit her after all of this psychological, emotional, economic, and other kinds of abuse, she becomes more compliant—and less likely to leave. 
Q: What are some challenges in the field of gun research right now? 
A: One is funding, and there other is political will. The extremely limited federal funding in the past 2 decades has hampered researchers’ ability to address important policy questions. It creates a circumstance that deters the next generation of researchers from entering the field. 
Check out our full coverage of AAAS 2017.