Pioneering study shows a link between the concentration of federally licensed firearms dealers and intimate partner homicide in the home


Much attention continues to be given to crimes committed with illegal guns, but there are high risks of intimate partner homicide with legally purchased firearms as well, according to a new Rutgers University-Camden study.

The pioneering study – conducted by Richard Stansfield and Daniel Semenza, assistant professors of criminal justice at Rutgers-Camden – shows a significant link between the concentration of federally licensed firearms dealers in urban counties and intimate partner homicide in the home.

“This study showed this robust association regardless of whether the victims were male or female or how old the victims were,” says Stansfield.

The forthcoming study, to be published in the September 2019 issue of the journal Preventive Medicine, is the first to investigate the connection between firearms dealers and intimate partner homicide at the county level, and one of only a handful ever to examine how access to legal guns through federally licensed firearm dealers in the community is linked to gun violence.

The Rutgers-Camden researchers – affiliated scholars of the Rutgers Center for Gun Violence Research – note that they did not find the same association between federally licensed firearms dealers and intimate partner homicide in rural counties.

They posit that, in rural areas, people are more likely to own a gun in the home and thus are less reliant on going out to a gun store to purchase one after an argument with the intent of harming or killing an intimate partner.

However, in urban areas, where fewer people own guns in the home, having more licensed firearms dealers takes on added significance.

“If there is greater access to legal guns, it could make it easier for someone to purchase a gun in the throes of an argument, before there is time to cool off,” explains Semenza.

“We can’t definitively say that’s the dynamic here, but this study backs prior research indicating that this greater access shows an increased risk.”

Furthermore, the Rutgers-Camden researchers explain, prior studies show that, when intimate partner violence occurs, more than likely firearms are used in the commission of the crime.

“This underscores the importance of examining where guns are coming from,” says Stansfield.

Semenza says that, from a policy perspective, they would like to see their research inform gun laws that make it more difficult for perpetrators of intimate partner violence to have easy access to guns, especially those with a history of domestic violence.

The Rutgers-Camden researchers also hope that this study is the first of many research projects focusing on the connection between access to legal guns and various types of violence.

“We are trying to draw out the why, what, and how local gun stores matter,” says Stansfield.

However, he says, one of the biggest barriers to their research is the limited data available on how guns purchased legally at gun stores get into the hands of perpetrators of intimate partner violence.

They hope to access complete police reports showing this data.

“If there is greater access to legal guns, it could make it easier for someone to purchase a gun in the throes of an argument, before there is time to cool off,” explains Semenza.

“We can’t definitively say that’s the dynamic here, but this study backs prior research indicating that this greater access shows an increased risk.”

“Until then, we can’t make any determinations that the person making the purchase is the one using the gun,” says Semenza, who notes that they use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention definition of an intimate partner as a current or former partner or spouse and does not require sexual intimacy.

Stansfield adds that they also plan to study how this link between legal gun access and different crimes varies according to population density and racial demographics, as well as determine what types of gun stores are more implicated – whether it is the larger, big-box retailers or smaller, local stores that have more established relationships in an area.

Furthermore, they note, the best place to analyze these associations – “to look at the nitty gritty of this research,” says Semenza – is to track the proximity of these stores to incidents rather than the higher-level estimates at the county and state levels.

“It might require looking at it from a spatial mapping perspective in order to take this study further than what we are looking at today,” says Semenza.

Of all intimate partner homicides (IPH), 98% are perpetrated by a man against a woman and more than half are carried out with a firearm (Petrosky et al., 2017; Violence Policy Center, 2017).

Although research suggests that the presence of a gun is a robust and significant risk factor for femicide in abusive relations (Campbell et al., 2003), little is known about the role of legal firearm availability in the community through federally licensed dealers and the risk of intimate partner homicide.

Recent studies have been conducted to understand how guns are ac- quired by those that commit violent crime, but the results are often derived from small samples and tend to focus predominantly on how guns are obtained illegally (Braga et al., 2012; Chesnut et al., 2017; Cook et al., 2015; Cook, 2018; Rexing et al., 2017).

But the majority of firearms in the US are originally purchased legally from a federally li- censed dealer or from unlicensed sellers at gun shows or in private sales.

Although there is a federal mandate for background checks on all purchases made with a federally licensed dealer, currently 28 states do not require any type of background check for guns purchased at a gun show or through private sale. The focus of the present study is specifically on federally licensed firearm dealers.

Research suggests that the availability of firearms in the home sig- nificantly increases the risk of a number of violent outcomes including homicide (Hemenway and Miller, 2000; Hepburn and Hemenway, 2004; Miller et al., 2002a; Monuteaux et al., 2015), suicide (Kellermann et al., 1992; Miller et al., 2002a), and accidental firearm death among children (Miller et al., 2002b).

Studies indicate that the influence of firearms on lethal violence also depends on factors such as gun caliber (Braga and Cook, 2018), regional gun culture (Lynch and Jackson, 2019; Lynch et al., 2018), and firearm storage practices (Azrael et al., 2018; Grossman et al., 2005).

Given the complex and multifaceted relationship between firearm availability and violence, analysis is needed at both the individual and community levels. With limited exceptions (Price et al., 2004; Wiebe et al., 2009), few studies have examined how access to legal guns in the community relates to gun violence, and no research has been conducted to specifically assess the association be- tween firearm dealer density and IPH at the county level.

In 2017, there were approximately 135,000 federally licensed fire- arms dealers and manufacturers in the United States (Steidley et al., 2017). Dealers include local gun stores, “big box” stores like Walmart and Bass Pro Shops, and pawnshops, all of which legally sell firearms to licensed customers (Steidley et al., 2017).

There is evidence to suggest that the legal purchase of a gun can increase the risk of violent death.

In a case-control study, Cummings et al. (1997) found that the legal pur- chase of a handgun was associated with long-term risk of violent death. Steidley et al. (2017) found that the prevalence of gun shops in neighborhoods increase the risk of homicide and robbery across 89 large U.S. cities. Similarly, Wiebe et al. (2009) found increased risk of homicide for urban counties with a greater concentration of firearms dealers. However, Price et al. (2004) did not find an association be- tween number of firearms dealers and homicide at the state level.

The somewhat mixed findings of these studies related to community gun availability and lethal violence suggest a need to better understand the role of community legal firearm availability in different kinds of violent deaths, including IPH.

We argue that there are three possible mechanisms that underlie the relationship between the concentration of firearm dealers in the com- munity and the risk of IPH. First, greater access to a firearms dealer may facilitate the ease by which a person can purchase a gun for preemptive protection (Griffiths and Chavez, 2004).

This may especially be the case in urban communities with high levels of violence, leading citizens to feel that they must be armed in the event of a conflict. Greater access to firearms dealers in the community may therefore operate as a “facil- itating” or “aggravating” factor (Clarke, 1997) that pushes a person to have a gun in the home when they otherwise might not have.

Second, a person may be more likely to purchase a gun with the intention of harming or killing an intimate partner if they (a) live closer to a gun store or (b) are surrounded by more purchasing options in their sur- rounding community. Greater access to firearms dealers may provide less time to “cool down” after an altercation, facilitating the purchase of a gun specifically for violence. Finally, a greater number of legal fire- arms dealers in the community may increase the availability of illegal guns through localized alternative markets fueled by gun store rob- beries or straw purchases (Wintemute, 2009, 2010).

In any of these three cases, greater direct access to a gun increases the risk for IPH by a factor of 5 (Campbell et al., 2003).

Firearm ownership is more common in rural versus urban areas, so as others have argued (Branas et al., 2004; Wiebe et al., 2009), there may be less need to purchase a new firearm from a licensed dealer to achieve lethal partner violence if there are already firearms in the home.

Given that there are also qualitative differences in firearm deaths by county type, including a higher rate of gun suicides in rural areas and higher rate of gun homicides in urban areas (Branas et al., 2004), and intimate partner deaths in rural areas (Reckdenwald et al., 2018), our analyses of the relation between licensed firearm dealers and partner homicides will consider the moderating role of county type.

Rutgers University
Media Contacts: 
Mike Sepanic – Rutgers University
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: The study will be published in September’s edition of Preventive Medicine.



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