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Most police murders involve guns, study finds

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A Massachusetts State Police trooper salutes at the memorial service for slain Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) police officer Sean Collier on April 24, 2013 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Collier was allegedly shot by the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, and his brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26,

More than 90 percent of police officers who are murdered are killed by guns, researchers report on Thursday.

The study comes out right in the middle of a debate over whether public health researchers should even look at gun deaths. The Obama administration says they should, in defiance of members of Congress and gun-rights supporters who say gun statistics are matters for criminal justice experts, not public health researchers.

David Swedler at Johns Hopkins University’s school of public health and Center for Injury Research and Policy, says he didn’t mean to wade into a political debate.

“We approached this from an occupational health and occupational safety standpoint,” Swedler said in a telephone interview. “We are looking to inform law enforcement officers about their workplace safety information, what hazards they face. We weren’t looking to write a political paper at all.”

Swedler’s team used FBI data to find that 93 percent law enforcement officers murdered between 1996 and 2010 were killed by firearms. Ten percent of these involved the officer's own service weapon, they report in the journal BMJ Injury Prevention.

“A total of 796 officers were killed in the line of duty between 1996 and 2010,” they wrote. “The most frequent encounter with a suspect prior to a homicide was responding to a disturbance call.”

Five percent of the time – in 37 cases – police officers were hit or run over by a vehicle, six were stabbed, three were killed with a blunt object and two were killed by an unarmed assailant.

“We can use this kind of methodical exploration of the data to inform training,” Swedler said. “Talking about the number of times that officers are killed with their own guns is an important point.”

Swedler pointed out that homicide rates have been going down in the United States. “It shows that training is effective but the risk is still very high compared to other occupations,” he said.

One thing that is not clear is whether protective gear helps. The FBI data only gave information about bulletproof vests or helmets about half the time, Swedler says, and in those reports the officers who were killed were wearing protective equipment about half the time.

Swedler’s team started the research in 2010, with a grant from the the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, one of the National Institutes of Health.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped its gun research in the 1990s, after Congress cut funding. President Barack Obama told the CDC this year to start doing it again.

In a separate letter in BMJ Injury Prevention, Dr. Frederick Rivara, president of the Society for Advancement of Violence and Injury Research, said the research is important for finding ways to reduce gun deaths.

“The latest mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut stirred the country and the world in ways not seen before,” Rivara , a researcher at the University of Washington, wrote. “Nevertheless, the hope for federal action on meaningful gun legislation has dimmed. How can this toll of gun deaths be reduced?” he added.

“We believe that research on prevention of firearm violence is an important and necessary part of the solution.”

Swedler’s team points out that police officers are more likely to die in car crashes than by being shot. But it’s a high-risk occupation – only taxi drivers, gas station and liquor store employees are more likely to be murdered on the job.