Column: Live with a gun owner? Researchers say that makes you less safe

A line at the Martin B. Retting gun store in Culver City extends out the door and around the corner.
(Francine Orr / The Times)

People buy handguns to protect themselves and their families. But guess what? Living with a handgun owner makes a person less safe.

That conclusion is derived from two research projects. One is a national survey of gun owners, including why they buy firearms. The other is a lengthy study of California homicides.

“Living with a handgun owner is associated with substantially elevated risk for dying by homicide,” concludes a Stanford University study of nearly 18 million Californian adults over a 12-year period. The report was released in April.


“It’s important to recognize that women bear the brunt of the elevated risks … and that the fatal assaults they experienced often took the form of being shot by men they lived with,” reported Yifan Zhang, a co-author of the study.

“We focused on secondhand risks of guns — like secondhand smoke risks,” says David Studdert, the study’s lead author, a health policy and law professor.

“Most of it involves domestic violence.”

The poll of U.S. gun owners was conducted by Beacon Research for a relatively new Los Angeles gun control advocacy group called 97Percent. The organization named itself after the percentage of Americans it says supports requiring universal background checks for gun purchases.

The September survey showed that by far the biggest reason given for buying a firearm was “to keep myself and my family safe.” It was listed by 58% of purchasers as “very important.” The next listed reason, cited by 24% as very important, was “I can’t count on the authorities to keep me safe.”

“Despite widespread perceptions that a gun in the home provides security benefits, nearly all credible studies to date suggest that people who live in homes with guns are at higher — not lower — risk of homicide,” Studdert said in a statement accompanying the Stanford report.

“People who lived with a handgun owner were seven times as likely to be shot and killed by a spouse or intimate partner; 84% of those victims were women,” the study found.


The study also didn’t find any evidence that living with a gun owner makes one safer from armed burglars.

The fear that nothing will work to stop gun violence provides a powerful argument for doing nothing. But experience shows that stricter gun laws save lives.

May 27, 2022

And that makes sense: How agile and alert can a sleeping gun owner be even if he has a loaded weapon on the nightstand? What if he mistakes his wife for an intruder as she returns from the bathroom? That’s a gun owner’s nightmare.

“The gun industry feeds the impression that people die at home from strangers. It helps sales,” Studdert says.

People do get murdered at home by intruders, and no one is minimizing that. But the Stanford study and others indicate that the best way to protect a family from gun violence is to not possess a gun in the first place.

Another Studdert study two years ago found that “owning a handgun is associated with a dramatically elevated risk of suicide.” The report noted that handguns were used in three-fourths of U.S. suicides in 2018.

And though other methods besides self-inflicted gunshots are used by those who attempt suicide, Studdert points out they are often survivable.


“If you reach for a bottle of tablets, you’re probably going to get a second chance,” he says. “If you reach for a gun, it’s nada.”

The 97Percent organization was formed to tap the minds of gun owners and bring them to the bargaining table on ways to reduce firearms violence.

“We’re trying to make sure all voices are heard,” Executive Director Mathew Littman says.

“Why are things like background checks not happening? They’re more popular than ‘Top Gun Maverick.’ ”

He says there’s an attitude problem in the country that’s holding up gun safety progress.

“Gun owners think the media talks down to them and that politicians talk down to them,” Littman says. And, to a large degree, he’s right.

Or as a reader who didn’t want to be identified put it in an email: “Gun rights advocates and gun control advocates often dislike and distrust each other. And it is these groups — not politicians — that must come together to hammer out a compromise where both sides give a little and get a little.”

But gun owners and nonowners agree on some things, the Beacon Research poll found.

“I was struck at how widespread the support is among gun owners for some of these gun safety proposals that are on the table,” pollster Matthew Shelter says. “The idea there’s a big gap between gun owners and non-gun owners is not borne out by the research.”


But their agreement is on pretty mild stuff, at least by California standards.

For instance, 86% of gun owners favor requiring background checks “on all guns sold in the U.S.” Presumably that would mean private sales too, including in gun show parking lots. California already requires this.

Also, 67% support passing “red flag” laws that would allow families, teachers and co-workers to report suspicious behavior and have a person’s guns temporarily seized. California has that too.

The gun lobbies and firearms industry still generally oppose these simple steps, however.

“We’re not getting rid of guns in this country. And banning assault weapons is not probable,” Littman says.

“What can we do to make a difference?”

His group has the answer: Encourage both sides to talk civilly and negotiate earnestly with each other. The timid politicians will follow.

And somehow convince people they don’t need a home arsenal.