Police At Greater Risk In States With High Gun Ownership

Aug 13, 2015

States with higher rates of gun ownership are more dangerous to police officers, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Despite their training and protective gear, law enforcement officers still get killed, mostly with guns. The authors of the study found that gun ownership in a given state seems to be an important risk factor: States with high rates of gun ownership had three times the rate of officer homicides than low-gun states.  

“Really, that's the shocking finding to me,” says David Swedler, an occupational health researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the lead author of the study. “Officers working in those states are at much greater risk of being murdered on the job than their brothers and sisters working across state lines, where guns are less frequent.”

“I'm an occupational health researcher, so I'm interested in what is killing workers,” says Swedler. “And for police officers in the U.S., it's guns that are killing police officers.”

Swedler and his team analyzed data on officer homicides, violent crime rates and household firearm ownership. Between 1996 and 2010, there were 782 homicides of law enforcement officers. Ninety-two percent of these were committed with firearms.

A map of law enforcement homicide rates in the United States.
Credit American Journal of Public Health

It’s important to note that Swedler and his team looked at rates of officer homicides, rather than total numbers. California actually had the most: 77 homicides. But its rate of officer homicides -- .58 homicides per 10,000 officers – puts California at 31 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia. Alaska had the highest rate of officer homicides, with 4.25 per 10,000 officers.

The conclusions of the study suggest that reducing the rate of firearm ownership could lower the number of officer homicides. The study doesn’t endorse any particular policy to lower gun ownership, but the finding could provoke a response from gun rights advocates.

“If they want to get mad at me, they have to ask why I'm doing this study, and I'm not doing it to take away people's guns,” says Swedler. “I work on occupational safety issues. This is an issue that is important to me.”

“If protecting the lives of officers matters to you, I would say, ‘Consider the laws in your state surrounding gun ownership.’”

Jake Harper can be reached at jharper@wfyi.org or 317-614-0482. Follow @jkhrpr.