This is an archived article.

April 14, 1997

Gun Ownership and Domestic Violence: A Lethal Combination

Gunshot wounds are the single most common cause of death for women in the home, accounting for 42 percent of suicides and 46 percent of homicides, concludes a study released today. In addition, prior incidents of domestic violence combined with a gun in the home dramatically increase the risk for murder for women.
Dr. Fred Rivara, UW professor of pediatrics, and director of the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, is co-author of the study appearing in the American Medical Association’s journal, Archives of Internal Medicine. The study links the relationship of weapons in the home and the increased risk of murder and suicide for women. “Tragically, the results of our study have played out here in our region more than once this past week,” said Rivara.

The study looked at 143 cases of homicide and 123 cases of suicide occurring in the homes of female victims in three metropolitan counties: Shelby County, Tennessee (Memphis); King County, Washington (Seattle); and Cuyahoga County, Ohio (Cleveland). Some of the results include:

82 percent of the murder victims were murdered by someone they knew. Only 3 percent were murdered by strangers.

Household use of illicit drugs, domestic violence and readily available firearms place women at particularly high risk of homicide at the hands of a spouse, intimate acquaintance, or a close relative.

Women who were killed by a spouse, lover, or close relative (55 percent) were killed in the context of a quarrel, physical domestic fight, or assault. This type of murder was frequently followed by the suicide of the murderer.

Illicit drugs and alcohol play a significant role in fatal domestic violence.

“Because drinking problems and illicit drugs use were highly predictive of fatal domestic violence, our data support efforts to mandate drug and alcohol treatment for known batterers with substance abuse problems,” the researchers write. “Our data also support prior research that suggests that practitioners should be alert for signs or symptoms of domestic violence in women suffering from depression. Furthermore, health care providers, public health departments, and law enforcement agencies should encourage family members to store firearms securely or remove them from the household that have problems with domestic violence.”

“Many of the risk factors for fatal domestic violence are ones that we can intervene with to prevent these tragic outcomes,” said Rivara. “Steps must be taken to develop the proper programs to do just that.”

Other researchers involved in the program include:

James E. Bailey, MD, MPH, University of Tennessee
Grant Somes, PhD, University of Tennessee
Joyce G. Banton, MS, University of Tennessee
Norman P. Rushforth, PhD, Case Western Reserve University
Arthur L. Kellermann, MD, MPH, Emory University