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Having a gun in the home appears to increase the risk of homicide victimization1 and perpetration.2 Some strategies to prevent gunshot deaths focus on firearm design and distribution practices. But what about the approximately 200 000 000 guns that are privately owned in the United States already?3 Is the risk of homicide in the home associated with how guns are kept?
Survey data published by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) portend an answer. The National Mortality Followback Survey (NMFS) interviews proxy respondents and gathers detailed information about US decedents, including homicide victims.4 The most recent (1993) NMFS asked if there were guns in the victim's home and how they were kept (for example, loaded, disassembled). Nearly identical questions were asked the following year in the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), which yielded data about how living people keep their guns.5
We used the data to assess if the risk of being killed in one's home (homicide) was associated with how the firearms were kept. Question wording prevented full use of the data. People who reported that multiple guns were present were asked one set of questions; the wording makes it unclear how a particular gun was kept. People reporting a single gun were asked different questions; these data are more tractable. Among the latter individuals, 14% of the living subjects and 58% of the homicide victims kept the gun in a non-recommended manner (that is, unlocked and loaded or with ammunition). Unfortunately, the relative risk for people with multiple guns in their homes (about 75% of the US households that contain guns3) cannot be determined.
Additional data are needed. One source is the 1998 NHIS, which asked revised firearm questions. We hope the NMFS is revised and readministered as well.
Asking people about guns, doing it quickly and concisely, and eliciting accurate information is a challenge. We are encouraged by the NCHS's commitment to include firearm questions on their already lengthy surveys. The firearm section is key, providing information by which to address important research questions.