CAMDEN, NJ — Illegal guns tend to be the focus of crimes committed, but there are high risks of intimate partner homicide with legally-purchased firearms as well, according to a new Rutgers University–Camden study.

The study — an analysis of 16 states 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.

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

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

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

The researchers said that, in rural areas, people are more likely to own a gun in the home. Thus, these individuals are less reliant on going out to purchase a gun after an argument with the intent of harming or killing a partner.

In urban areas, however, where fewer people own guns in the home, 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,” Semenza said. “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.”

Prior studies show that when intimate partner violence occurs, firearms are more than likely used in the commission of the crime, the researchers said.

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

Semenza said that, from a policy perspective, researchers would like to see their work inform gun laws that make it more difficult for the perpetrators to have easy access to guns, especially those with a history of domestic violence.

The researchers also hope that this study is the first of many 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,” Stansfield said.

However, he said one of the biggest barriers to research is the limited data available on how guns purchased legally at gun stores get into the hands of perpetrators of intimate partner violence. Studies into gun violence have been slowed or outright halted over the past few decades due to lobbying efforts on federal legislation.

Researchers hope to access complete police reports showing the relevant data.

“Until then, we can’t make any determinations that the person making the purchase is the one using the gun,” Semenza said. He noted that researchers use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) definition of an intimate partner: a current or former partner or spouse and does not require sexual intimacy.

Stansfield said that researchers also plan to study how the link between legal gun access and different crimes varies depending on population density and racial demographics. Another focus is on what types of gun stores are more implicated in crimes — the larger, big-box retailers or smaller, local stores that have more established relationships in an area.

The best way "to look at the nitty gritty of this research,” Semenza said, is to track the proximity of these stores to incidents, rather than using 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,” Semenza said.