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Guns Kill Loved Ones but Offer Little Self-Defense

New research puts to bed the myth that gun ownership makes for a safer home — in fact, it seems firearms only endanger loved ones’ lives

Photo by Kenny Luo on Unsplash

OfOf the 30% of Americans who own guns, roughly two-thirds say it’s for self-protection. However, they might want to reconsider: New research is challenging the notion that gun ownership makes for a safer home. In fact, for the first time, scientific research shows that guns actually increase the risk of homicide among intimate partners and family members — but notably not strangers. And in states with lax gun laws, children are especially at risk.

One new study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, compares firearm ownership levels and homicide rates in all 50 states, from 1990 through 2016, looking also at the victim’s relationship to the offender. It finds that for every increase in gun ownership at 10% increments, domestic firearm homicide — specifically involving an intimate partner or other family member — goes up 13%, while non-domestic firearm homicide goes up just 2%. In roughly half of all homicides reviewed, the victim was a friend or acquaintance of the offender.

“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,” says Aaron Kivisto, the lead author on the study and an associate professor at the University of Indianapolis.

Gun ownership by state was divided into quartiles, with the highest ownership rating noted by OOOO. Domestic homicide rates are indicated by shading, with the darkest shade indicating 1.02 to 1.77 domestic firearm homicides (intimate partner or other family member) per 100,000 people. Credit: Aaron Kivisto / American Journal of Preventive Medicine journal

Kivisto and his colleagues looked at all causes of homicide, finding that when guns aren’t present, people rarely turn to other weapons to kill someone in domestic situations.

“Where there are more guns, there are more domestic homicides, and this is driven by firearms,” Kivisto writes in an email exchange. “We don’t see low gun-owning states having higher rates of non-firearm domestic homicides.” The analysis is “the first to show who precisely bears the burden of increased rates of firearm ownership,” he says. “The victims placed at risk are those in the home.”

Kivisto admits his study can’t prove cause-and-effect — researchers are unable to argue that the mere presence of guns alone directly leads to deadly outcomes — but his team worked to rule out anything else being the cause for the results they see.

The findings build on a 2014 study led by Michael Siegel at Boston University. Siegel’s team found no significant relationship between gun ownership and stranger-on-stranger homicide, but linked higher levels of gun ownership to increases in “non-stranger” homicide.

Siegel says Kivisto’s new paper takes research a step further by providing “strong evidence” of a correlation between household gun ownership and rates of intimate partner gun violence — but notably, not homicides committed by strangers.

“By looking only at domestic homicide, the study excludes some forms of acquaintance homicide — such as gang killings — where the victim and perpetrator may not be well-known to each other,” says Siegel, who was not involved in Kivisto’s research.

The new data feeds into a body of research showing the complexity of what’s driving the United States’ very unique gun violence epidemic — and who its victims are.

A person with access to a gun is almost twice as likely to be the victim of homicide and is three times more likely to commit suicide, based on an analysis of 15 studies, 13 of which were in the United States. These findings, detailed in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2014, also found that when firearms are accessible, women are nearly three times as likely to be homicide victims, and men are nearly four times more likely to commit suicide.

The impact of gun ownership extends to kids, too. Firearm injuries are the second-leading cause of death for U.S. children, says Monika Goyal, a researcher at Children’s National Health System. Goyal recently compared gun-related deaths among children and young adults up to age 21 with the strength of state-by-state gun laws.

“Now we have scientific evidence for what common sense previously told us.”

In states that for at least five years had required universal background checks for firearm purchases, gun deaths among youth were 35% lower. The results are published this month in the journal Pediatrics.

“Our findings demonstrate a powerful association between the strength of firearm legislation and pediatric firearm-related mortality,” Goyal says. “This association remains strong even after we adjust for rates of firearm ownership and other population variables, such as education level, race/ethnicity, and household income.”

States with stricter firearms regulation, including “laws regulating dealers, background checks, licensing, reporting of lost or stolen guns, multiple purchases, and gun design and manufacturing standards” have, on average, lower rates of gun-related homicide and suicide, according to a study last year in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. The research also found that in states with lax gun laws, counties saw lower rates of gun deaths only when they were surrounded by states with tighter gun restrictions.

A follow-up to that study, published earlier this year in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, finds the effects of strict state firearms regulations are diminished when neighboring states have lax laws.

According to Mark Seamon, a senior author on the study and an associate professor of traumatology and emergency surgery at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, some prospective gun owners travel across state lines in order to purchase firearms under less restrictive laws. In turn, there’s an uptick in the number of guns and homicides back in their home state, even if laws there are technically tighter.

“Now we have scientific evidence for what common sense previously told us — that the benefits of firearm laws might not be fully realized until either all states reach a certain threshold level of firearm legislation or more universal federal firearm legislation is enacted” Seamon says.

Independent health and science journalist, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience, writing about how we age and how to optimize your mind and body through time.

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