My partner and I share a home. We neither own a firearm. In concern about the rising rates of crime in our area, my partner purchases a handgun for us to protect ourselves. Are we making our house safer? Are you?
Millions of Americans may have asked themselves these questions, or versions of them—especially in the wake of horrific mass shootings like those in Buffalo and Uvalde. The belief that having a gun at home provides security benefits is well-supported by surveys that show record sales of guns over the last 2 years.
Recent publication in The Associated Press of a brand new research study by my research team. Annals of Internal MedicineThere are no benefits. The opposite is true: People who live in houses with guns are at significantly higher risk of being killed.
Gun violence at its most obvious form is the mass shooting. However, they only make up a tiny fraction of all fatal shootings. These deaths, which are often less well-known and private tragedies, occur at home or on the streets.
California’s 18 million adult residents were studied. In the twelve years that the study was ongoing, almost 2,300 died of homicide. Thanks to California’s historical archive of firearm transactions, we could identify who in this enormous population personally owned guns, and who lived with gun owners. The study’s goal was to see whether homicides were more or less likely to occur in homes with handguns.
Similar studies in the past have examined this question and found higher rates of homicides in houses with guns. Three new aspects were found in our study.
First, rather than calculating risks to the household as a whole, as the prior research has done, we focused on household members who lived with handgun owners but weren’t themselves owners. In other words, we tackled a “second-hand” risk of firearm ownership. Surprisingly little knowledge exists about second-hand gun risks. Imagine not being able to distinguish the dangers of smoking from those who smoke. This is unfortunately where gun violence research stands at the moment, at most partly due to the lack of data necessary for such studies. (California’s archive is unique.)
Our study also examined the link between gun access, homicide risk and guns in a larger sample than any previous ones. The scale provided an opportunity to examine risks of particular kinds of homicides—for example, those occurring in or around the home, and those at the hands of family members. Measuring the dangers and protective benefits of gun access by examining deaths at home makes sense, because that is where most guns are kept most of the time; it’s also where a plurality of homicides occur.
In measuring the risk of homicide, we used handgun owners as a comparison. However, this was only done for people living in the same area. This allowed us to ensure that our calculations were not affected by local factors such as economic and crime rates.
That was how the study setup looked. Was this what we found?
The rate at which handgun owners were killed by murder was twice that of gun-free neighbors. The main reason for this difference was homicides at the home that were three times more frequent among those who lived with handgun owners.
For certain types of homicide, we found much greater differences. Particularly, handgun owners lived seven times longer than people who were not married to their gun owner. These cases show that, rather than being protective, many household guns were used as the weapon of death.
An especially troubling finding was that the vast majority of victims in these intimate partner shootings—84% in all—were female. Women are most at risk from second-hand gun ownership. That’s because most people who live with gun owners and don’t themselves own guns are women.
Another area where study findings were notable was the number of homicides that had been committed by unknown persons. Homicides of this kind were relatively uncommon in our study population—much less common than deaths perpetrated by the victim’s partner, family members, or friends. People living with guns did not have to experience these crimes as often as people who lived in homes without firearms.
This results contradicts the traditional gun rights narrative that firearm owners use guns to defeat or repel a hostile intruder. This protective benefit was not even mentioned by our research. Our findings suggest that handgun owners had cohabitants. MoreDespite not being statistically significant, it was likely that strangers would kill you.
The second study was published by the team in JAMA PsychiatryOn April 29, the attention of suicide risk in second-hand handgun owners was switched to a larger sample of California women. Their suicide rate was 50% higher than that of their gun-free neighbors, with suicide rates more than fourfold greater for suicides involving firearms.
Everyone wants a safe home and a better community. Mounting scientific evidence indicates that bringing a gun into the home isn’t a step in that direction. On the contrary, if safety is the goal, it’s more likely to be a shot in the foot—or much worse.
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