I live with my partner. Neither of us owns a gun. Concerned about reports of rising crime rates in our neighbourhood, my partner decides to buy a handgun to help keep us safe. Is our home safer now? Am I?
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. Record-breaking spikes in gun sales over the last two years, alongside surveys indicating that self-protection continues to be the dominant reason for buying guns, underscore a widely-held belief that a gun in the home has security benefits.
A new study from my research team, recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, shows no such benefits. We found the opposite: people living in homes with guns face substantially higher risks of being fatally assaulted.
Mass shootings are the most visible form of gun violence in America. But they account for a small fraction of all fatal shootings. Most of these deaths are lesser-known, private tragedies that occur in homes and on the streets.
We studied 18 million adults living in California. Nearly 2,300 of them died by homicide over the 12 years of the study. 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.
Previous studies have probed that question, with virtually all finding higher homicide rates in homes with guns. But our study had three novel features.
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 is known about the second-hand risks of a gun in the home. Imagine being unable to separate the risks of smoking to smokers from the risks of environmental tobacco smoke poses for everyone else. That, unfortunately, is about where gun violence research stands today, at least partly because of the data needed to conduct such studies do not exist. (California’s archive is unique.)
Second, our study was many times larger than previous studies of the relationship between gun access and homicide risk. 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.
Finally, in measuring homicide risks, when we compared people who were living with handgun owners to people who were not, the comparisons were always made between people residing in the same neighborhood. This approach helped ensure that local conditions, like crime rates and economic conditions, had minimal impact on our calculations.
So that was the study set-up. What did we find?
People living with handgun owners died by homicide at twice the rate of their neighbors in gun-free homes. That difference was driven largely by homicides at home, which were three times more common among people living with handgun owners.
We detected much larger differences for particular types of homicide. Most notably, people living with handgun owners were seven times more likely to be shot by their spouse or intimate partner. In many of these cases, instead of being protective, the household gun probably operated as the instrument of death.
An especially troubling finding was that the vast majority of victims in these intimate partner shootings—84% in all—were female. It stands to reason that women bear the brunt of any second-hand risks that flow from firearm ownership. That’s because most people who live with gun owners and don’t themselves own guns are women.
Study findings in one other area were noteworthy: homicides perpetrated by strangers. 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. But when they happened, people living with gun owners did not experience them less often than people in gun-free homes.
This result clashes with a classic narrative promulgated by gun rights groups: firearm owners use their weapon to turn away or overpower a threatening intruder, thereby protecting home and hearth. We did not detect even a hint of such protective benefits. If anything, our results suggest that cohabitants of handgun owners were more likely to be killed by strangers, although that result did not reach statistical significance.
A second study by our team, published in JAMA Psychiatry on April 29, switched the focus of second-hand risks to suicide in a large sample of women living with handgun owners in California. They were 50% more likely to die by suicide than their female neighbors in gun-free homes, and more than four times as likely to die by suicides that involved the use of firearms.
All of us crave a safer home and 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.