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More Guns Mean More Police Officer Homicides

Yet another study finds areas with higher rates of gun ownership experience higher rates of homicide.
(Photo: Alexey Smolyanyy/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Alexey Smolyanyy/Shutterstock)

Do good guys with guns deter bad ones? There is a growing body of research that suggest they don't. Here's the latest: A study published last week finds that police officers are three times more likely to be murdered while at work in those states with the highest rates of gun ownership, compared to states with the lowest rates of gun ownership. Between 1996 and 2010, 92 percent of law enforcement officers who fell victim to homicide while in the line of duty were shot.

The study, which appears in the American Journal of Public Health, joins a slew of others, all of which have found a positive correlation between gun ownership and higher homicide rates. In past studies, that correlation showed up even when researchers controlled for other characteristics of states, including levels of poverty and non-lethal violent crime, and the prevalence of urban environments. Together, this body of research undermines the popular belief that if criminals knew the people around them were likely to be armed, they would think twice about killing. Instead, the research suggests that when people—including police officers—encounter armed folks more often, they're more likely to be fatally shot.

Of course, in the case of police officers, other factors make a difference to the danger they encounter on the job, too. Other studies have found cops are more likely to become homicide victims if they work in areas with high rates of violent crime, which makes sense. But the gun-ownership pattern exists independently of states' rates of violent crime, write the study's authors, a team of public health researchers who worked at Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University.

The new study did find some exceptions to the general pattern that it couldn't quite explain. While Wyoming had the highest rate of gun ownership in the study, the researchers found no law enforcement homicides recorded between 1996 and 2010 in the Federal Bureau of Investigation database. Conversely, Washington, D.C., had the lowest rate of gun ownership, but a high rate of police homicides. Other studies should examine what other factors make certain states more dangerous for police officers than others, the researchers write. One thing is certain: This isn't an issue that is likely to be going away any time soon.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.