The nation's gun control organizations have found new ammunition in their fight to restrict the sale of weapons in a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The study found that homicides are more likely to occur in households where guns are kept than in households where they are not.
Rather than providing protection against intrusions by strangers, they appear to increase the risk that one family member or acquaintance will kill another, the study said.
The findings were released Wednesday by two physicians who directed the study, Arthur Kellermann of Emory University in Atlanta and Frederick Rivara of the University of Washington.
Gun control supporters immediately cited the study to bolster their case for restrictions of the sale of guns.
"(It) clearly shows that guns are not the miracle-cure, self-protection solution many people are seeking," said Sarah Brady, who chairs the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence in Washington, D.C., and wife of James S. Brady, White House press secretary during the Ronald Reagan Administration.
"I hope these findings give the public pause before they rush out and purchase a firearm which, rather than protecting their family, actually will increase the risk of gun violence in their home."
While gun control supporters rallied round the statistics, those who oppose restrictions on the sale and possession of weapons called the findings flawed.
Dr. Paul Blackman, research coordinator at the National Rifle Assn., said his organization remains unmoved by the findings. He criticized the study's exclusive focus on homicides, saying that it ignored cases of "nonfatal wounding" and "nonfatal non-wounding" in its evaluation of the effectiveness of a gun in the home.
Brady's organization is lobbying for passage of the so-called Brady bill, which would, among other things, require a waiting period for the purchase of a handgun. The bill is named for the former press secretary, who was seriously wounded in the March, 1981, assassination attempt on then-President Reagan.
"It's ironic that this study is released the very same month that a new ad campaign paid for by the National Rifle Assn. encouraging women to buy guns appears," she said. Other gun control lobbyists agreed that the study would help their campaign.
"This study will likely come up in every discussion we have on guns, violence, and safety," said Gwen Fitzgerald, associate director of communications at the center. "When people understand that guns lead to an increase in violence, it will be much easier to address public policy issues and strategies."
Although not the first study to link gun possession with an increased homicide rate at home, it is one of the most comprehensive and widely researched of its kind.
Supported by grants from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control and the Centers for Disease Control, it involved 420 households in three metropolitan areas in the states of Tennessee, Washington and Ohio, where homicides had occurred.
Researchers found that the risk of being murdered was almost three times higher in homes with guns than in homes without them. The great majority of victims, 76.7%, were killed by a spouse, other family member or acquaintance, the study found, and 93% of the victims kept a loaded gun in the home. By contrast, homicides by a stranger were rare, occurring in only 3.6% of cases.
Besides increasing the risk of homicide, having guns at home did not provide significant protection against intruders, the study found.
The study came just days after the FBI released its annual Uniform Crime Report for 1992, which said that one murder occurs nationwide every 22 minutes. The rate actually decreased in every region of the country except the West, where it increased 1%.