A mere month after the Newtown, Conn., school shootings, Gayle Trotter, of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, made an outlandish claim in a highly public venue. “Guns make women safer,” Trotter told the US Senate Judiciary Committee in early 2013. “Using a firearm with a magazine holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition, a woman would have a fighting chance, even against multiple attackers.”
No evidence backs up that idea, and now a new study from Boston University shows just how wrong she is. Far from making women safer, higher rates of gun ownership correspond to higher rates of women who are murdered by people they know. Researchers Michael Siegel and Emily Rothman, who rightly believe that gun ownership is an urgent public health issue, assembled an impressive 33 years’ worth of data on state-by-state gun ownership — a treasure trove in a field of research that has been starved for funding for many years. They controlled for a slew of variables: age, gender, race, region, urbanization, income inequality, alcohol use, divorce rate, and suicide rate, among others.
What they found was deeply troubling: In states where a greater proportion of the public owns guns, more firearm-related homicides are committed. And the percentage of variation in the firearm-related homicide rates explained by differences in gun ownership is higher for women than for men. (The researchers use the accurate and memorably chilling term “femicide” to describe the murder of women.)
The study, published in the journal Violence and Gender, “means that gun ownership alone is a very good predictor of the femicide rate in a particular state,” Siegel says. “The presence of a gun is the biggest risk factor for domestic violence deaths among women.”
There’s some good news in the research for Massachusetts, which ranks second-lowest in gun ownership, according to Rothman. But guns in the home heighten the risk of domestic violence, period. “The work that I’ve done shows that not only are women more likely to be murdered when there is a gun in the home, but a large proportion of them are threatened just because the gun is there.”
Legal remedies exist already. As Toni Troop of Jane Doe Inc. points out, there are strong laws on the books that allow authorities to confiscate firearms in situations where there is a restraining order or a prior conviction; continued enforcement is key to keeping guns out of the hands of abusers. Last year, Governor Baker stepped up to re-launch the Governor’s Council to Address Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, named Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito as chair, and made the council part of the governor’s office. Those moves certainly provide needed visibility. The council received money in the fiscal 2017 budget to create domestic violence prevention training programs and is working with local law enforcement agencies to develop a standardized risk assessment tool for officers responding to domestic violence calls.
But there is also a burning need for more evidence-based research about firearms and domestic violence. The government collects data about smoking, seat-belt use, and other potentially harmful behaviors. Yet it has been 12 years since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did a state-level survey asking people whether they own a gun. For decades, funding restrictions imposed by pro-gun congressmen have effectively blocked CDC studies on gun violence. Siegel and Rothman’s study, which was funded by Boston University, a private school, shows just how important robust data collection and cogent research can be.