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States with higher rates of gun ownership have more gun-related domestic homicides, study finds

The risk of being murdered in a domestic dispute rises for both men and women living in a home with a gun, but women are particularly at risk, the study reports.

The risk of being murdered in a domestic dispute rises for both men and women living in a home with a gun.
The risk of being murdered in a domestic dispute rises for both men and women living in a home with a gun.
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

States with higher rates of gun ownership have significantly higher rates of gun-related domestic homicides, according to a study published online Monday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Unexpectedly, the study did not find a similar link between state gun ownership rates and non-domestic homicides — those involving friends and acquaintances (including employers and co-workers) and strangers.

The risk of being murdered in a domestic dispute rises for both men and women living in a home with a gun, but women are particularly at risk, the study reports.

“While personal protection is a commonly cited reason for owning a gun, our research shows that firearm ownership also confers significant risks to loved ones, as they are more likely to be killed if there is a gun in the household, said Aaron Kivisto, the study’s lead author and a forensic psychologist at the University of Indianapolis, in a released statement.

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“Our findings highlight the importance of firearm removal in protecting victims of domestic violence, the majority of whom are women,” he added.

There were 39,773 gun-related deaths in the United States in 2017 — the highest rate since the mid-1990s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two-thirds of those deaths were suicides, which have been increasing at an alarming rate since 2000.

A study published earlier this year reported, however, that gun-related domestic homicides are also on the rise, climbing 26 percent between 2010 and 2017.

Firearm ownership and domestic firearm homicide rates in the U.S., 1990‒2016.
American Journal of Preventative Medicine
Firearm ownership and domestic firearm homicide rates in the U.S., 1990‒2016.

How the study was done

For the current study, Kivisto and his colleagues used data from a variety of government agencies to compare household gun-ownership rates with annual homicide rates in all 50 states for the years 1990 through 2016. They analyzed data from 1990 through 2016, a period in which 316,000 people across the United States died in a gun-related homicide.

The researchers dug down into the data to see if the state-level gun-ownership rates were linked to homicides rates within certain relationships — intimate partners, other family members, friends/acquaintances and strangers.

Gun-ownership rates in the states ranged from 10.4 percent in Hawaii to 68.8 percent in Wyoming, the data revealed. The rates varied by region, too, with more people owning guns in the south and west and fewer owning them in the northeast.

Minnesota’s rate was 38.8, which was close to the national average of 39.2.

States in the highest quartile in terms of firearm ownership had a 65 percent higher rate of gun-related domestic homicides during the period studied than states in the lowest quartile, the researchers found. The association was most pronounced among southern states.

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Each 10 percent increase in the household gun ownership rate was associated with a 13 percent increase in the incidence of family members being the victim of a gun-related murder.

States with higher rates of gun ownership did not have much higher rates of non-domestic homicides, however.

Each 10 percent increase in the household gun ownership rate was associated with a 2 percent increase in the incidence of gun-related homicides in which the victim and the shooter were not related.

“It is plausible that nondomestic firearm homicides are driven more by street-related violence where perpetrators are more likely to illegally obtain their weapons, which are frequently traded across state lines,” Kivisto and his colleagues write.

As Kivisto explained to New York Times reporter Sarah Mervosh, “These might not be gun owners as we tend to think of them, but gun obtainers.”

Limitations and implications

The study comes with several caveats. Most notably, it is an observational study and therefore can’t prove a direct connection between state-level gun ownership and domestic homicides. In addition, the data sources used in the study often lacked information about the relationship between homicide victims and their assailants, so the study’s authors had to use an indirect method to fill in that missing information. That data may therefore contain inaccuracies.

Also, the category of intimate partners did not include people the homicide victims had previously dated — a factor that likely resulted in an underestimating of the prevalence of intimate-partner homicides.

Still, the study’s findings are in line with those of previous research that has shown that people living in households with guns are at significantly greater risk of dying from a gun-related injury.

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Kivisto and his colleagues say their findings “support the need for state firearm legislation directed toward protecting victims of domestic violence, as access to firearms uniquely increases the likelihood of homicide among this population.”

“Research has consistently shown that states with higher levels of gun ownership tend to have higher rates of firearm homicide and suicide,” Kivisto told Newsweek reporter Kashmira Gander. “What our findings suggest is that the increased risk of firearm homicide attributable to firearms isn’t equally shared across all potential victims.”

While around 1 in 4 homicide victims are women, they account for about 3 in 4 victims of intimate partner homicide, he pointed out.

“This tells us that an increased risk for homicide victimization associated with gun ownership has a disproportionate impact on women,” said Kivisto. “At the same time, our results also showed that the incidence of domestic homicide victimization increases for both men and women as gun ownership rates go up.”

“The narrative about gun ownership and personal protection tends to ignore the risks associated with firearm ownership, including the risks to others in the home,” he added. “Gun owners should weigh up these perceived benefits and risks and engage in safe storage and other practices to reduce the risk of a domestic incident becoming fatal. ”

FMI: The study can be found on the website for the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.