Support for expansive gun rights and police officers often go hand in hand, and most conversations about gun control center on civilian casualties. But according to new research, gun control efforts benefit law enforcement, too.
“If you are looking to protect the lives of police officers ― if that’s something that interests you as a person, as a reader, as a policymaker ― consider the firearm laws in your state,” said David Swedler.
Swedler isn’t a gun control activist. He’s a research assistant professor of environmental and occupational health sciences in the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health and the lead author of a new study showing that police officers are more likely to be killed by firearms in states with high gun ownership, regardless of the level of violent crime in that state.
The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health in August, found the states with high gun ownership reported three times the number of police officer homicides as states with low gun ownership.
“I’m an occupational researcher,” said Swedler. “Occupational homicide, specifically gun homicide, is a risk for police officers. That’s what we set out to investigate here: Is there a link between gun ownership in states and police officer homicide?”
The answer is a resounding yes.
Gun ownership, not high crime, is the biggest factor in police homicides
The states with the most homicides of police officers and the highest firearm ownership are Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Mississippi and Montana. Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island had the fewest police homicides and the fewest number of guns.
There were also a few outliers in the study. Washington, D.C. -- treated as a state for the purposes of this study -- had low gun ownership and a high homicide rate for police officers. Wyoming, on the other hand, reported zero police officer homicides during the course of the 15-year study, despite the fact that the state has one of the highest firearm ownership rates in the country.
The second question Swedler set out to answer was whether or not violent crime related to officer homicide. "We thought that that would be the other side of the coin," he said. "If they’re not getting killed by more guns, maybe they’re getting killed by more frequently encountering bad guys. It turns out that wasn’t as much the case as gun ownership was."
Using the FBI's Uniformed Crime Reporting database, Swedler and his team tracked the number of law enforcement officers killed between 1996 and 2010. That amounted to a total of 782 homicides -- 716 of them involving guns -- over 15 years.
Ninety percent of police officer homicides are committed with a firearm, according to research published by Swedler and his team in 2014.
“If you are looking to protect the lives of police officers ... consider the firearm laws in your state.”
There's no government database of gun ownership. To track it, the researchers turned to a combination of the survey-based Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, and the Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System, which tracks firearm suicides compared to suicides that did not involve a firearm.
How does the U.S. compare to other countries?
In a word: poorly. Between 1900 and 1999, 20 times as many police officers died from intentional gunshot wounds in New York City as they did in similarly populous London, where most officers do not carry guns and gun ownership is extremely low, according to a study published in the journal Injury Prevention in 2006.
"We are a country so different from the rest of the world," said epidemiologist Bindu Kalesan, a gun violence researcher at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. "We have a lot of entrenched social gun culture.
"It’s hardwired into people that protecting gun rights is more important than protecting a person’s health and well-being," she added.
There are more than 310 million guns in the United States. That's almost enough to arm every man, woman and child in the country, according to Kalesan, who published a study profiling the average gun owner (male, white, married or divorced, high-income and over the age of 55) in the journal Injury Prevention in June.
The good guy with a gun myth is just that: a myth
Gun advocates and NRA spokesmen are fond of portraying the world as a scary place. In their estimation, the only way to protect yourself and your family from so-called bad guys is by owning a gun.
It's any argument that anyone can make, according to Kalesan. "But when we step back, this is all about being ill-informed." The opposite is true, she says: Guns don't protect us. They actually make us less safe.
"When you have a gun you are more likely to injure someone else within your household, rather than actually protecting yourself," Kalesan said. Indeed, a 2014 study found a positive correlation between gun ownership and firearm homicide, and a separate study, published the same year, found that having access to a firearm increases the risk that an individual will be the victim for a homicide or will die by suicide.
We need stricter laws to protect public health
If you live in a state with strict firearm laws and a low gun ownership rate, logically speaking, you should be insulated from gun violence. But that's not really how it works.
"Legal gun ownership creates a market," Kalesan said. And with porous state borders and a lack of any federal gun restrictions, firearms can easily move from state to state.
One policy that could make a dent, but hasn't gotten much traction in Congress, is that of widespread background checks. There is a law in place -- the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 requires gun stores to check the names of buyers against a database of felons, substance users and domestic abusers -- but it's far too easy to get around if you purchase a firearm at a gun show or online.
Still, Kalesan thinks rigorous background checks would be a good first step, especially if they are extended to include buyers shopping not just for firearms, but for ammunition as well. "Let's at least put a sieve," she said. "Instead of putting a dam, let's put a sieve."
Graphic by Alissa Scheller for The Huffington Post.
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