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Mass gun attacks — like the tragic 2012 killing of 27 children and adults in Newtown — usually prompt calls for changes in gun laws. Gun-rights advocates contend better armed civilians can fend off attacks by strangers in their homes, while gun-control activists argue that deadly firearms need to be kept out of the hands of homicidal maniacs through tougher gun laws.

A new Boston University School of Public Health study suggests, however, that both sides may be wrong. Examining data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reports for all 50 states from 1981 to 2010, the researchers confirmed a 2013 study, which found total homicide rates were higher in states with the highest percentage of gun owners. But the latest finding published in the October issue of the American Journal of Public Health also found no difference among states in the incidence of murders committed by those who didn’t know their victims.

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What did increase with gun ownership? The incidence in murders committed by loved ones, friends, and acquaintances, such as rival gang members.

“Not only do guns not protect people from having strangers kill them but having those guns around puts them at greater risk for being killed in a situation with someone that they do know,” said study co-author Dr. Michael Siegel, professor of community health sciences at the BU School of Public Health.

The new study found that, for each one-percentage point increase in state-level gun ownership, the state’s non-stranger homicide rate increased by 0.9 percent, with firearm homicides increasing by 1.4 percent.

In Wyoming where nearly 74 percent of households own guns, 12 percent of gun homicides were committed by strangers — and 88 percent were committed by those who knew each other. In Hawaii, where just 13 percent of homes have a gun, 21 percent of gun murders were committed by strangers.

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While the researchers could not prove that gun ownership led to more frequent gun killings among neighbors, Siegel said lowering the total number of firearms in the US will likely lower the number of gun homicides. To deter gun attacks by strangers, however, states may need to find more creative solutions than gun laws, such as better mental health screening and treatment, he added.


Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.