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High gun ownership linked to high rate of police officer deaths, study shows

The Guardian logo The Guardian 8/14/2015 Joanna Walters in New York
Customers look over rifles for sale at a gun shop. Brian Blanco/Reuters © Brian Blanco/Reuters Customers look over rifles for sale at a gun shop. Brian Blanco/Reuters

US states with the highest levels of gun ownership are also the ones where police officers have the highest risk of being killed in the line of duty – the vast majority by gunfire, a study has shown.

Researchers found that states such as Montana, Arkansas, Alabama and Idaho, which have the highest rates of state-registered private gun ownership, also have the highest rates of homicide of law enforcement officers. States including Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey experience some of the lowest rates of both police officers killed and gun ownership.

“States should consider methods for reducing firearm ownership as a way to reduce occupational deaths of law enforcement officers,” was the blunt advice from the research paper published online on Thursday by the American Journal of Public Health.

Researchers studied the 782 homicides of police officers between 1996 and 2010 and gun ownership rates state by state using information from the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If we’re interested in protecting police officers, we need to look at what’s killing them, and it’s guns. We know that 92% of police officers killed in the line of duty are killed by guns, three-quarters of which are handguns,” said David Swedler, lead researcher and an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health.

The research paper, also involving experts at Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities, pointed out that the New Jersey cities of Camden and Newark are perceived as two of the most violent cities in America, “yet New Jersey’s police are among the least likely to get shot”.

Swedler concluded that gun ownership rates had a closer correlation than violent crime to officer homicide rates.

Police officers in states with the highest rates of gun ownership are three times as likely to be killed as officers in states with the lowest rates of gun ownership, the researchers found – 0.95 homicides per 10,000 law enforcement officers in the former compared with 0.31 homicides per 10,000 in the latter.

One reason, Swedler said, is that officers are often killed while responding to domestic violence calls and, where gun ownership rates are highest, they have a much greater chance of walking into a potentially lethal situation when arriving amid the tension of a domestic dispute.

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