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Situational Role of Firearms in Violent Encounters, Final Report

NCJ Number
William Wells Ph.D.
Date Published
226 pages

This study examines the argument that the presence of a firearm in an assault increases the probability that lethal injuries will occur, independent of the gun user's intentions.


The theoretical framework is grounded in the social interactionist perspective and coercive action theory. Social interactionism stresses the importance of personal variables and situational factors in the study of violent encounters, rather than emphasizing the importance of one over the other. Coercive action theory identifies the important factors that affect individual decisionmaking processes in conflict situations. This study used self-reported data from 547 newly incarcerated male offenders in Nebraska to examine the independent effects of weapons in violent and potentially violent episodes. The propositions associated with coercive action theory predict that guns provide people with power that permits them to carry out their intentions. The findings do not support the expectation that gun effects depend on whether or not the possessor/user intends to seriously injure an opponent. The effects of guns on the outcomes of violent events may be confounded with the effects of individual intentions because those with the strongest motivation to injure may choose a more "serious" weapon. Results indicate that, net of personal influences, the independent effects of guns are not radically different when situation-specific intentions are controlled than when intentions are not controlled. Situation-specific intentions to injure significantly increase the changes that a respondent will attack his opponent, that a respondent will injure his opponent, and that a respondent will seriously injure his opponent. The relationship between an individual's intentions to seriously injure and an individual's choice of weapon must be examined further. The hypothesis that gun possession and gun attacks independently increase the chances of violence is partially supported. Gunshot attacks significantly increase the probability that inflicted injures will be severe rather than minor. While gun possession increase the probability that the possessor will attack his opponent, a gunshot is significantly less likely to injure its target than other forms of attack. 5 figures, 12 tables, 2 appendixes, 71 references

Date Published: January 1, 2001