Having a Gun in the House Doesn't Make a Woman Safer

Firearms have been touted as a great equalizer between the sexes. But in cases where self-defense matters most, women tend to find their own weapons turned against them. 
A father takes his 14-year-old daughter shopping at a gun show in Houston. (Reuters)

Christy Salters Martin is a professional boxer and the owner of a concealed carry permit. But when she attempted to leave her husband, she was shot with her own gun. Today, she cautions other women against making the same mistake. “Just putting a weapon in the woman’s hand is not going to reduce the number of fatalities or gunshot victims that we have. Too many times, their male counterpart or spouse will be able to overpower them and take that gun away.”

Wayne LaPierre, executive vice-president of the National Rifle Association, has argued that firearms are a great equalizer between the sexes. In a speech at the Conservative Political Action Committee last year, he declared, “The one thing a violent rapist deserves to face is a good woman with a gun.” But the empirical reality of firearm ownership reflects anything but equality, particularly when it comes to intimate partner violence. Such fights become much more frequent and lethal when firearms are involved, and the violence is nearly unidirectional, inflicted by males upon females. This relationship holds true not only across the United States, but around the world.

A recent meta-analysis concluded what many people already knew: the availability of firearms is a strong risk factor for both homicide and suicide. But the study came to another conclusion that is rarely mentioned in the gun control debate: females are uniquely impacted by the availability of a firearm. Indeed, the study found that women with access to firearms become homicide victims at significantly higher rates than men.

It has long been recognized that higher rates of gun availability correlate with higher rates of female homicide. Women in the United States account for 84 percent of all female firearm victims in the developed world, even though they make up only a third of the developed world’s female population. And within American borders, women die at higher rates from suicide, homicide, and accidental firearm deaths in states where guns are more widely available. This is true even after controlling for factors such as urbanization, alcohol use, education, poverty, and divorce rates.  

What’s more surprising is how many of these deaths occur in the home, at the hands of a male partner. In a study in the Journal of Trauma, A.L. Kellermann, director of the RAND Institute of health, and his coauthor J.A. Mercy concluded: “More than twice as many women are killed with a gun used by their husbands or intimate acquaintances than are murdered by strangers using guns, knives, or any other means.”

In another study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers interviewed 417 women across 67 battered women’s shelters. Nearly a third of these women had lived in a household with a firearm. In two-thirds of the homes, their intimate partners had used the gun against them, usually threatening to kill (71.4%) them. A very small percentage of these women (7%) had used a gun successfully in self-defense, and primarily just to scare the attacking male partner away. Indeed, gun threats in the home against women by their intimate partners appear to be more common across the United States than self-defense uses of guns by women.

Another large case-control study compared women who were murdered by their intimate partner with a control group of battered women. Only 16 percent of the women who had been abused, but not murdered, had guns in their homes, whereas 51 percent 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 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.  

Presented by

Evan DeFilippis is an analyst with the Kenya-based nonprofit organization Innovations for Poverty Action. He writes about gun control issues at ArmedWithReason.com.

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