Fear: the invisible factor in gun violence research

While so many studies are focused on the physical injuries caused by gun violence, one expert is calling on researchers to also focus on the psychological effects.

In an interview with Science magazine, Susan Sorenson, gun violence expert and professor of public health at the University of Pennsylvania, discussed the often overlooked fear and psychological terror that come with non-fatal gun use in domestic disputes.

According to Sorenson, in 2013 there were over 137,867 calls to Philadelphia police regarding domestic violence. Out of that number, 35,413 of the incidents involved “intimate partners” and only 576 involved a gun.

Of the domestic disputes involving a gun, Sorenson and her team found 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.”

When a gun was present in these disputes, Sorenson said that about 69 percent of the time the guns were only used as tools of intimidation.

“We found that fear is substantially higher when a gun is used to threaten a victim,” Sorenson said. “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.”

Sorenson noted that when guns are present, they are often used to exert “coercive control,” a circumstance found 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,” Sorenson said. “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.”

Sorenson also spoke of the difficulties of conducting gun violence research, noting that federal funding is extremely limited, which she worries may deter younger researchers from entering the field.