The lives of police officers are in the greatest danger in the states with the highest gun ownership rates, according to a new study by a University of Illinois at Chicago researcher.
Illinois, California and New York —with lower-than-average gun possession rates —are among the least deadly states for police officers, according to the study published in the American Journal of Public Health.
David Swedler, a UIC assistant professor who led the study while he was at Harvard University, found officers are particularly at risk when responding to domestic violence calls in states with high gun ownership rates.
Stricter gun laws could drive down firearm ownership — and reduce police fatalities, according to the study released Thursday.
“If you are looking to protect officers’ lives, think about the gun laws in your state,” Swedler said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.
The National Rifle Association blasted the study’s findings on Thursday, saying it was based on flawed numbers.
Illinois had 28 murders of officers from 1996 to 2010. The homicide rate of officers in the state was 4.6 per 100,000 officers, the 16th lowest rate in the country.
About 21 percent of Illinois households were estimated to have at least one firearm present over the study period, the eighth lowest rate in the country.
Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Mississippi and Montana led the country both in gun ownership rates and the rate of law enforcement murders per capita, the study found.
Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island had the lowest rates.
Swedler and his colleagues estimated that a 10 percent higher statewide firearm ownership rate would have resulted in 10 percent more law enforcement officer homicides in each state over the 15-year study period.
“Higher private gun ownership increases the frequency with which officers encounter life threatening situations,” he said.
Because there’s no national gun registry, the researchers had to estimate state gun ownership rates.
They turned to a national household survey of health risks. One of the questions was: “Is there a gun present in the home, yes or no?”
Because those data were only available for 2000, 2001 and 2004, the researchers also compared the number of firearm suicides with all types of suicides to come up with a second estimate of state firearm ownership rates.
Jennifer Baker, a spokeswoman for the NRA, argued that the study is highly flawed. The information isn’t reliable because it’s primarily based on a survey of gun ownership, she said.
Over-reporting takes place in states where people are more supportive of gun ownership, and vice versa, Baker said.
“They do not know the levels of gun ownership,” she said.
Baker pointed out that some states with the biggest rates of gun ownership —like Wyoming —have recorded zero murders of officers in some years of the study period.
She also said killings of law enforcement officers have been on the decline between 2003 and 2013, while purchases of new handguns have been on the rise.
“This isjust another ‘so-called’ study skewed by the anti-gun bias of its lead author, who hails from the Bloomberg School of Public Health, which is funded by and named after billionaire Michael Bloomberg —the leading gun control activist in the country,” Baker said.
Swedler acknowledged the two measures of gun ownership were “not perfect” but were the best ones available to the researchers.
As for his past connection to the Bloomberg School, “I decline to respond to that line of argument,” Swedler said.
In Illinois, 28 police officers have been murdered since 1996, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. Cook County Sheriff’s investigator Cuauhtemoc Estrada was the last officer killed. On Dec. 20, 2013, he was off-duty when he was shot while trying to stop a robbery, officials say.
The other fallen officers include 18 from the Chicago Police Department and one officer each from the Metra police; suburban police departments in Maywood and Riverdale; the Centreville, Hampshire, Kankakee and Rockford police departments; and the sheriff’s departments in Douglas, Stark and Vermillion counties.
Three of the Chicago Police officers were off-duty when they were killed and four were killed after the shooter took their service weapon. All of the slain officers from the other departments were on duty, and two of them were killed when their weapons were taken from them.
Nationally, about 10 percent of murdered police officers were killed with their own weapon, according to Swedler’s study.
Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy is “interested in reading the study,” according to his spokesman, Anthony Guglielmi. Still, the police department’s “issue is not with legal gun owners but the small segment of the population who obtain guns illegally and use them to hold neighborhoods hostage by gun violence,” Guglielmi said.
David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at Harvard University, was among the other researchers who contributed to the study. Hemenway is known for previous research that found more guns resulted in more deaths.
Hemenway found a woman with a gun in the home was nearly three times more likely to be the victim of a homicide than a woman living in a home without guns. Other research found a link between more guns in areas and more suicides.
Hemenway’s conclusions have clashed with the work of former University of Chicago researcher John Lott, who found crime goes down when states pass concealed carry legislation.