A new Yale study has suggested that firearm threat is a unique predictor of the severity of PTSD symptoms among victims of intimate partner violence.

Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine interviewed victims of intimate partner violence, in order to assess the prevalence of the threat of firearms and these firearms’ relationship to PTSD symptoms. They found a high prevalence of firearm threat and a strong relationship between this threat and the severity of PTSD symptoms among victims.

First author Tami Sullivan, also the Director of Family Violence research at the School of Medicine, said the findings support what service providers and researchers have long believed about the unique role played by firearms in intimate partner violence and provide evidence that could be useful in lobbying for stricter gun laws. The research was published in the journal Violence and Gender on March 28.

“I still think what’s most striking about this is just the most basic statistic, which is just the prevalence of firearm threat,” Sullivan said. “I think the striking findings are the simple ones — that over 20 percent said their partner had a gun during the relationship and of those that said their partner didn’t, 46 percent said he could easily get one. It’s really the descriptive statistics that are the most surprising findings.”

The study collected data from 298 women between the ages of 18 and 75 who were victims of domestic violence and whose offenders had been arraigned 12 to 15 months prior to the study. Fifty percent of participants self-identified as African American, 28.9 percent as white, 14.1 percent as Latina, and 7 percent as from another or multiple ethnic backgrounds. Just over 74 percent were no longer dating the offending partner.

About a fifth of the women said their partners had owned a gun during their relationship, while of those whose partners had not owned a firearm, 46.1 percent said it would be either easy or very easy for their partner to access one. During the 30 days prior to the study, 24.8 percent of the women met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD and the results showed that greater firearm threat and fear of firearm violence were significant predictors of greater PTSD symptom severity.

According to Sullivan, although researchers were aware that firearms posed a significant threat to victims of domestic abuse, the extent of this threat was unknown.

“Part of it is understanding the basic prevalence in a community sample, like how bad is this problem? We didn’t really know,” she said. “We wanted to understand among women in the community who had experienced partner violence, what’s the prevalence of them being threatened with a firearm and how is it affecting their day-to-day functioning?”

Sullivan added that she and co-author Nicole Weiss, an associate research scientist at the Medical School, were inspired to study the psychological effects of the threat of firearms because previous research on domestic violence and firearms has mostly focused on homicide.

Although Sullivan agreed that homicides from firearms are a serious issue, she said the psychological impacts of firearms are also extremely serious and are often overlooked.

“We are now understanding how [the threat from firearms] is related to things like PTSD, depression and substance abuse, but also, eventually, we’ll be able to understand how it may influence parenting, ability to work, housing stability and financial stability,” she said.

According to Director of Public Policy and Communications for Connecticut Coalition against Domestic Violence Liza Andrews, the data will be helpful in supporting the mission of her organization, which works to help member organizations provide direct services to victims of domestic violence and does lobbying and advocacy work relating to domestic violence.

She said research of this kind helps CCDAV choose which policies to advocate for at the Connecticut General Assembly.

“We will certainly look at the recommendations that Dr. Sullivan makes in her report and see how we can incorporate them into what we are already doing with victims,” Andrews said. “We think [the research] helps highlight the dangerous combination of firearms and intimate partner violence, whether it’s the use and then subsequent fatality, or it’s the threat and the severe trauma caused to the victim.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three women have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lives.