After decades of decline, the rate of Americans killing their intimate partners has seen “a sharp increase” in recent years. Data shows that uptick is exclusively due to gun-related murders.
That’s according to a recent look at federal homicide data from 1976 through 2017 by two Northeastern University criminologists. Homicide rates generally, have been on the decline for decades, but buried within that downward trend, the researchers found a sudden, three year spike in homicides between romantic partners beginning in 2014.
“While there has been no increase in intimate partner homicides that involve knives and beatings and poisonings and other kinds of weapons,” said the study’s co-author, Criminology Professor James Fox. “The entire increase in the last few years has been with guns.”
Currently, men are much more likely to kill their female partners than the other way around. In the report, Fox wrote more than two thirds of intimate partner homicides are men killing women. Only a fifth of cases are women killing their male partners.
Fox says in the 1970s, an equal number of men and women were dying at the hands of intimate partners. The rate of women killing male partners began to drop significantly from then on. Fox points to other research that argues American women stopped killing their partners as often because of social and legal shifts allowing them greater freedom and independence.
“We have provided escape routes, essentially, for women who’ve been abused, whether it be shelters or restraining orders, easier access to divorce,” said Fox. “So that women don’t have to pick up a loaded gun to shoot their husband.”
A decline in rates of men killing their female partners began decades later, in the 1990s after continuing to rise throughout the mid-1970’s and ‘80s. Fox says a reversal in the trend began just as new federal measures prohibiting abusers from buying guns, contained in Brady Bill (1993) and the Violence Against Women Act (1994), came on the scene.
“The fact that there was a significant change right around 1993 suggests — I can’t say proves — but does suggest that what we were doing looks like it had an effect,” said Fox. “That’s the nature of this kind of research. Correlation doesn’t always mean cause.”
“Prior to [the 1990s], our efforts to benefit victims of abuse — such as restraining orders or shelters — often became the precipitating event, where a guy basically said, ‘You’re trying to get out of this relationship? No way, lady,’ and it would end up being a homicide,” said Fox.
Despite the overall decline in women murdering their intimate partners, the study did note that wasn’t the case for all women.
“Although the white female offending rate decreased with enhanced domestic violence support, there is no evidence that it decreased violence perpetrated by black women,” the study reads.
Fox declined to speculate on why, adding “but clearly, the kinds of services available vary by race.”
The vast majority of homicides involve men.
“Ninety percent of murderers are male, and 75 percent of their victims are male,” Fox said.
“It’s important to go beneath the overall homicide rates and counts to identify subpatterns within that.”
He said his next step may be to break down the data of the recent spike in intimate partner murders by state, to study whether some states are contributing higher numbers than others.
For now, he says it’s not clear what may have caused the recent surge.
“The three-year increase is not necessarily a sign of a long-term trend, but it worrisome nonetheless,” said Fox. “I hope it’s an aberration, but we shall see.”
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.