For women, guns in the home prove especially deadly

Huntington Beach SWAT officers prepare to enter a home in May 2011 in which police believed two people died in a murder-suicide.
Huntington Beach SWAT officers prepare to enter a home in May 2011 in which police believed two people died in a murder-suicide.
(Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

So much for the argument that a gun in the house makes you safer. And it’s especially not true for women.

Atlantic Cities has a roundup piece Monday of recent studies of gun ownership and violence. It concludes that women living in homes in which guns are present are at much higher risk of being shot — most often by a spouse or partner — than women in homes without gun access. The most recent study is in the Annals of Internal Medicine, and its overall conclusion is direct: “Access to firearms is associated with risk for completed suicide and being the victim of homicide.”

According to the study, there is a pronounced risk for a woman being the victim of a firearm homicide if she lives in a home in which guns are present. And often the shooting is accompanied by the suicide or attempted suicide of the shooter, most often a spouse or partner.

Or more succinctly, having a gun in ready reach turns domestic violence more deadly while doing little to dissuade either the attacker or a prospective home-invasion robber. From the study:

The annual rate of suicide by firearms (6.3 suicides per 100,000 residents) is higher in the United States than in any other country with reported data, and the annual rate of firearm-related homicide in the United States (7.1 homicides per 100,000 residents) is the highest among high-income countries. Results from ecological studies suggest that state restrictions on firearm ownership are associated with decreases in firearm-related suicides and homicides.


Specific characteristics about storage and types of firearms seem to increase suicide risk. Firearms that are stored loaded or unlocked are more likely to be used than those that are unloaded or locked, and adolescent suicide victims often use an unlocked firearm in the home. The apparent increased risk for suicide associated with firearms in the home is not unique to persons with a history of mental illness and may be more of an indicator of the ease of impulsive suicide.

Impulsiveness may be a catalyst in using a firearm to commit suicide and may also play a role in firearm-related homicide. Researchers have estimated higher odds of homicide victimization among women than men. Because most homicide victims know their perpetrators, this finding may indicate an impulsive reaction to domestic disputes.

The Atlantic Cities piece also cites an American Journal of Public Health study of clients in battered women’s shelters, which found that nearly a third of the women had lived in homes with firearms, and of those, 7 in 10 had been threatened with the gun by their partners. Only 7% had used the guns in their own defense, and “primarily just to scare the attacking male partner away.” From the article:

Another large case-control study compared women who were murdered by their intimate partner with a control group of battered women. Only 16% of the women who had been abused, but not murdered, had guns in their homes, whereas 51% of the murder victims did. In fact, not a single study to date has shown that the risk of any crime including burglary, robbery, home invasion, or spousal abuse against a female is decreased through gun ownership. Though there are examples of women using a gun to defend themselves, they are few and far between, and not statistically significant.

These facts should be as chilling to men as they are to women. A 2005 study examining mortality data from 1998-2000 found that when a female was shot by her intimate partner, the perpetrator subsequently killed himself in two-thirds of the cases. This statistic not only shows the necessity of getting mental help for at-risk men; it also further suggests that owning a firearm may make a household more vulnerable than ever.

As I’ve written before, as a nation we seemed to be consumed by this romanticized narrative of reaching for a gun to defend home and hearth from a bad guy. The reality is, an armed society is a dangerous society — to itself, above all others. Homicide, suicide, accidental shootings — is that an acceptable social cost for the rights of gun enthusiasts to pursue a hobby?


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