Domestic Violence + Guns: A Deadly Equation

When a gun is accessible and a relationship is abusive, it is 10 times more likely the abuser will kill their intimate partner. Yet most of the time, people don’t see it coming – or don’t want to.

“If we pay attention to any documentary or any news story, every single family member – whether it’s the abuser’s family or the victim’s family – the first words are ‘I never thought they would do something like that; I never thought it was to this extreme,’” says Danyette Smith, director of domestic violence for the City of Indianapolis. The program she runs, Indy Champions for Domestic Violence Prevention, is funded through the Office of Public Health and Safety and an initiative of the Indy Public Safety Foundation. When she works with survivors, she gives them that raw truth: They are 1,000% more likely to be murdered. “Abusers lie, victims lie, but numbers don’t lie, and these are the numbers.”

As a survivor herself, Danyette tells it like it is, but she doesn’t want to panic anyone. “It has to be ‘I care for you. I was once you. I’m being who I needed, and I need you to know that this could happen.’

Photo showing back of man holding handle of gun tucked in the waistband of his denim jeans“In the majority of cases, the victims still have love for their abuser,” she says. “They still hope that abuser will change. Sometimes, it takes for me to position their minds to think about their kids – if it’s 10 times more likely for you to die in your home, it’s 10 times more likely for those kids to grow up without a parent.”

Guns are the No. 1 weapon in domestic violence killings in the U.S. According to the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, firearm deaths in domestic violence-related occurrences have risen by 23%. And Indiana is far above the national average in domestic violence fatalities. While more than half of domestic violence murders are committed with guns, in Indiana from 2021 to 2022, it was 89%. This has a disproportionate impact on Black, Indigenous and Latinx women, but it doesn’t only affect women. Anyone can be in danger if their abusive partner has a gun. (Note: There is not enough data around guns and intimate partner violence in the LGBTQ+ community due to underreporting.)

“The death toll extends to mass shootings, many of which have some connection to domestic violence: in more than half of mass shootings, the shooter killed an intimate partner,” according to Giffords, an organization led by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Brady, founded by Jim and Susan Brady, reports that in America, 60% of mass shooting events between 2014 and 2019 were either domestic violence attacks or perpetrated by those with a history of domestic violence.

In Indianapolis, the first quarter of this year saw double the number of domestic violence-related nonfatal shootings than in any previous first quarter of the last five years. It’s a growing issue – and one that goes beyond intimate partners.

“When something is going on, it’s not safe to call dad or brother or mom, not even to say, ‘Can you come over and help me move my stuff?’” says Danyette. “It’s safer to call the police first. When family or friends come, the abuser thinks they’ve really lost power and control. That leads to a greater chance of them killing your friend, family member or you as well.”

This is confirmed by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, which says intimate partner homicide events often result in multiple victims, including the deaths of coworkers, friends, new dating partners of the victim, strangers, police officers, and children or family of the victim. It is not uncommon for the perpetrator of the intimate partner homicide to die by suicide.

Domestic violence advocates overwhelmingly recommend against survivors of domestic violence purchasing their own gun because of the increased risk it carries. In Danyette’s case, a gun she owned that was in the home she shared with her abuser was used against her. Though she won’t go as far as to say a survivor should never own a gun, Danyette advocates for all guns to be removed if domestic violence is going on in the home. “No matter who owns the gun, it still increases the chance of homicide.”

In Indiana, people convicted of domestic battery may not possess or carry a firearm. That is true federally and for 12 other states. According to Johns Hopkins, “If states were to extend this ban to people convicted of any violent misdemeanor, the result would be a 23% decrease in intimate partner homicides.”

“I would love to see more individuals held accountable at a federal level because that would be a deterrent,” says Danyette.

Indiana law authorizes – but does not require – courts to issue protective orders that require the abuser to surrender all firearms and ammunition in their possession.

When officers go to a domestic violence scene, and the victim states the gun was used against them or a threat was made, they can remove the gun. “If a crime has taken place, officers will take the gun, but if no crime has taken place, they lawfully can’t take a gun because you can legally have a gun without a permit now,” says Danyette.

She does not support Indiana’s new open carry law. “There used to be a time where you didn’t show your gun, but now you see it in every gas station,” she says. “As long as guns can be freely in the streets, we know that those individuals are in relationships. Individuals who have that power and control issue, if they do possess a gun, that gun will be used.”

Ultimately, it’s about education. Training on conflict resolution will help – but that only works for those who want it. Danyette says the main thing is boots on the ground and having real conversations with those carrying guns.

“My mind always goes to those high-violence zip codes,” she says. In Indianapolis, the zip codes with the highest rates of gun violence, domestic violence and poverty overlap. The majority of those committing gun violence are between 16 and 34. “We can get to the 16-year-olds in school, but we need to get in front of the others,” Danyette says. “If we can get them to think three extra seconds, that’s probably going to save a life. Education is super important – the majority of these DV shooters are first-time abusers. When we wait until they’ve committed the abuse, we’ve failed everybody.”

Please know if you are being abused or stalked by a partner, and that partner has a gun, you have a high risk for serious injury or death. We strongly recommend a safety plan for anyone experiencing intimate partner violence – has an interactive plan available online and offers tips for keeping yourself safe when guns are in the home. If you think you are in immediate danger, call 911. You may want to seek emergency shelter at The Julian Center, The Salvation Army or other local shelters. Call 211 for assistance in finding safety.