Intimate Partner

Abuse by Firearm

A Survivor's Story of Strength

When a firearm is accessible in an abusive relationship, it is significantly more likely to result in a deadly outcome. Here, a survivor of domestic abuse discusses some of the experiences she had with an abusive partner. Dr. Amy Persichetti and Irene Brantley discuss the red flags and warning signs of domestic abuse as well as some solutions that are in place for survivors.

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Erica Zebrowski

Supporting Survivors of Abuse

Every day, Americans lose their lives or suffer injuries as a result of gun violence, which is a public health concern.

Nearly 1 million American women have been shot - or shot at - by an intimate partner, and around 4.5 million women have been threatened with a gun. Guns are used in more than half of all homicides involving intimate partners.

“Most of the mass shootings in the United States are actually domestic violence,” Melissa Landsman, volunteer and chair of the board at Women in Transition, said.

Women are typically the target of violence, and they frequently fall prey to someone they know well. In fact, if a woman's abuser has access to a gun, she is five times more likely to be murdered, according to a statistic by The Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence. Domestic violence occurs because abusers frequently threaten, terrify and use force with their victims simply by having a firearm around, causing severe psychological harm.

The question is: How are guns getting into the hands of abusers?

According to the Pennsylvania Protection from Abuse Act (PFA), abusers who have protection orders against them are not necessarily required to turn over their firearms. The decision to surrender a firearm is generally left to the individual, per this law. However, there are safeguards in the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that call for relinquishment. These safeguards require abusers who are the subject of a protection order to surrender their firearms in accordance with federal law, regardless of whether the Pennsylvania protection order specifies that they must be turned in. VAWA provides significant safeguards for those who have experienced intimate partner violence. 

However, a legal loophole known as “the Boyfriend Loophole" prevents many intimate partners from securing protection. Abusers are only required by VAWA to give up their firearms in situations where the abuser and the victim were married, shared a home or had a child together. In other words, if a victim was abused by a partner with whom they did not live and were not married, VAWA and the PFAA allows the abuser to keep their gun in many circumstances.

A gun in the hands of an abuser is one of the most dangerous things that you can find,” Dr. Amy Persichetti, Associate Professor of Writing and Narrative Arts at Cabrini University, said. Persichetti teaches a course on dating and domestic violence at the university.

Society frequently asks the question, "Why don't they leave the abuser?" There are many factors at play, making it far from simple.

“It’s not that easy to leave a domestic violence situation. There could be financial issues, kids involved, isolation from family, gaslighting, manipulation and lack of mental health support,” Persichetti said.

There is proof that victims of intimate partner violence suffer severe mental health effects. When seeking care, services are frequently found to be inadequate.

Women In Transition is a Philadelphia-based organization established in 1971 whose mission is to ensure that women in need and other disadvantaged people have equal access to institutional, political, economic, cultural and spiritual power. 

WIT recognizes that domestic abuse affects people of all sexes and not just women. The organization acknowledges the same systems of power can also further stigmatize and isolate male survivors and discourage them from seeking assistance. Survivors who identify as queer, trans or gender nonconforming also face particular challenges and conditions.

Salary inequality, vulnerability during pregnancy, and the stigma associated with seeking help for domestic violence and substance use are just a few of the factors that prevent women from leaving a violent relationship.

Most recently, COVID lockdowns created another barrier to escape. According to statistics from the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, incidents of domestic violence in the U.S. increased by 8.1 percent when lockdown orders were implemented during the 2020 pandemic. 

“Isolation is a dream for abusers,” Persichetti said. Therefore, COVID-19 was the perfect occasion for abusers to exert influence over their intimate partner.

Because of all these factors, at WIT, empowerment counseling is the foundation of their work.

“So it's about meeting the survivor where they are,” Landsman said. “Sometimes that might mean that they're staying in the house with the person who is, unfortunately, their abuser. They may not be in a situation where they can walk away just yet. So WIT is really helping each of the survivors wherever they are in the process.”

WIT offers a wide range of services to assist survivors, such as the telephone lifeline where women can contact them by phone at 215-751-1111. They can also reach out by email at if they need supportive counseling. They can speak with trained, trauma-informed staff and volunteers Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

WIT has peer support groups such as the Sister Circle, which serves women-identified survivors. Their Peer Empowerment Group is open to all genders. The Sister Circle is facilitated by Irene L. Brantley, Interim Executive Director at WIT.

“Sister Circle is a support group for women and those who identify as women,” Brantley said. “I make sure that people get heard. If somebody needs support, we're supporting them around whatever situation. People give resources in the chat to each other.”

The Sister Circle equips women with the skills they need to rebuild their lives after experiencing domestic violence and/or substance use and to boost their self-esteem and confidence. As they progress toward safety, sobriety, and self-sufficiency, the goal is that survivors will have the skills necessary to speak up for both themselves and their children.

“It's amazing, I wouldn't sleep because it inspires and invigorates me so much like the resiliency of our clients,”  Brantley said.

Many individuals who participate in WIT’s services feel it is a great organization that has positively impacted their lives, even saved them. The organization’s website features survivors’ testimonies that highlight how WIT has empowered them and how it will help others. 

At WIT, all services are free. Other organizations, particularly up-and-coming ones in the community, can take a look at WIT and adopt the services they offer, like their empowerment philosophy.

Learn more about WIT at

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Team Leader for Text
Toniann Gooden

Women in Transition is an organization that helps women in domestic violence situations. Melissa Landsman, the chair of the board at WIT explains its programs and their impact. 

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Team Leader for Audio
Isabella LoPolito