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Domestic Disputes Are More Likely to Turn Deadly in Cities Where Guns Are Easy to Obtain

New research finds a link between intimate-partner homicides and the per-capita number of gun dealers in an urban county.
Gun enthusiasts visit a gun show where thousands of different weapons are displayed for sale on July 10th, 2016, in Fort Worth, Texas.

Gun enthusiasts visit a gun show where thousands of different weapons are displayed for sale on July 10th, 2016, in Fort Worth, Texas.

As we recently reported at Pacific Standard, having a gun in the home increases the chances that a domestic violence dispute will turn lethal. New research reveals another circumstance that might exert the same effect: having a firearms dealer conveniently located nearby.

In a new study, Richard Stansfield and Daniel Semenza of Rutgers University–Camden report that, on average, urban counties with more federally licensed firearms dealers per person have higher rates of intimate-partner homicides.

"If there is greater access to legal guns, it could make it easier for someone to purchase a gun in the throes of an argument, before there is time to cool off," Semenza said in announcing the findings. "We can't definitively say that's the dynamic here, but this study backs prior research indicating that greater access [is linked to] an increased risk."

The study, published in the journal Preventive Medicine, used homicide data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with county-level data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms indicating the number of licensed dealers, importers, and pawn shops per 100,000 people.

After taking into account any state-level restrictions on gun sales, the county's non-domestic homicide rate, and a variety of socioeconomic factors including poverty and unemployment rates, the researchers found a clear pattern.

"We found that the rate of licensed firearm dealers was consistently associated with more homicides perpetrated against intimate partners, irrespective of gender or age," they write. Stansfield reports that this association was robust and held true "regardless of whether the victims were male or female, or how old the victims were."

Precisely why is a matter of informed speculation. The researchers argue that the presence of gun stores nearby "results in a higher likelihood of a gun already in the home," as well as higher odds that "an aggrieved partner may more easily acquire a gun immediately after, or during, an altercation."

Importantly, this association was true only for urban counties.

"There may already be firearms in many rural homes, precluding the need for the offender to go out and purchase a new firearm" to kill one's spouse or lover, the researchers write. "It is also likely that people obtain guns more frequently through other means, such as private sales or gun shows in rural areas, thus relying less on gun stores than those in urban areas."

Stansfield and Semenza caution that gun-violence data is frustratingly limited, and when it comes to intimate-partner violence, the person who pulls the trigger isn't necessarily the same one who bought the weapon. But their study suggests the number and location of firearms dealers does have an effect on how often domestic disputes turn deadly.

"Legal access to guns in the community may be the most fruitful policy arena within which the prevention of homicides is achievable," they conclude. Whether we're talking about domestic violence or mass shootings, the easier it is to obtain firearms, the higher the likelihood that a gun will end up in the hands of someone with murder on their mind.