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Criminal Justice

Firearm ownership and homicide across the United States

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Debate over firearm laws in the United States flares with every tragic event — Columbine High School in 1999; Virginia Tech in 2007; Tucson in 2011; Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., in 2012, to name just a few — and the issue is never far from the national consciousness. Among developed countries, the U.S. has the highest rate of gun ownership as well as one of the highest rates of homicide. Reviews of the research literature suggest that it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions, but some U.S.-based studies have drawn significant correlations between gun ownership and murder rates.

In any case, more than half of the homicides in the country in a given year are typically committed with firearms, according to FBI data. Still, over the period 2000-2012 the Pew Research Center has found a significant shift in public opinion toward favoring gun rights.

A 2002 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, “Rates of Household Firearm Ownership and Homicide Across U.S. Regions and States, 1988-1997,” looked at the ratio of homes owning guns and the homicide rate in the given area.

The study’s findings include:

  • In the six states with the highest rates of gun ownership, an average of 53% of households owned firearms; in the four states with the lowest rates of gun ownership, an average of 13% of households contained firearms.
  • From 1988 to 1997, the high-gun states had more than 21,000 individuals who were homicide victims, compared with 7,300 in the low-gun states.
  • People living in the high-gun states were 4.2 times more likely to die in a gun-related homicide than those in the low-gun states, and 1.6 times more likely to die in a non-gun-related homicide.
  • After controlling for rates of poverty, urbanization, unemployment, per capita alcohol consumption, and violent crimes other than homicide, the association between rates of firearm ownership and homicide remained significant.

The researchers state that the study shows that “in areas with more firearms, people of all ages were more likely to be murdered, especially with handguns.” The study does not provide information about causation, however — for example, local homicide rates could drive gun acquisition.

Tags: crime, safety, guns

    Writer: | Last updated: March 21, 2011

    Citation: Miller, Matthew,; et al. “Rates of Household Firearm Ownership and Homicide Across U.S. Regions and States, 1988-1997", American Journal of Public Health, December, 2002, Vol. 92, No. 12, 1988-1993.DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.92.12.1988.

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the study "Rates of Household Firearm Ownership and Homicide Across U.S. Regions and States, 1988-1997."

    1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
    2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
    3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

    Read the issue-related New York Times article "A Clamor for Gun Limits, but Few Expect Real Changes."

    1. If you were to rewrite the article based on knowledge of the study, what key changes would you make?

    Newswriting assignments

    1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
    4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.