Police officers in the U.S. are more likely to be killed in states that have a high rate of gun ownership, a new study finds. According to the study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, law enforcement officials in these states are more than three times likely to be killed on the job than those in states where private gun ownership is less prevalent.

“If we’re interested in protecting police officers, we need to look at what’s killing them, and what’s killing them is guns,” lead author David Swedler from the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, said in a statement Thursday. “We know that 92 percent of police officers killed in the line of duty are killed by guns, three-quarters of which are handguns.”

For the purpose of the study, Swedler and his colleagues analyzed the homicide rates of police officers -- calculated as the number of officers killed by guns per number of officers employed in each state -- between 1996 and 2010 using FBI data. To get data on gun ownership, researchers used a survey called the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which is conducted annually by state health departments.

The study found that of the 782 cases of homicides of police officers, 716 were committed using guns. The top gun-owning states such as Montana, Alaska, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi also had the highest rates of officer homicides, while Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island ranked at the bottom for gun ownership as well as police officer homicides.

gun ownership A UIC study found that police officers in states with high private gun ownership are more than three times more likely to be killed on the job than those in states with the lowest gun ownership. Photo: Megan Strand/UIC

In the eight states with the lowest gun ownership, the homicide rate among police officers was 0.31 per 100,000 while in the 23 states, with the highest gun ownership, the homicide rate was 0.95 per 100,000. 

“Hypothetically, officers might be put at increased risk if they are more frequently encountering violent criminals, but our data doesn’t find that to be the case,” Swedler said. “We found that officers aren’t being killed in states with high violent-crime rates. While violent crime rates didn’t track closely to officer homicide rates, it was public gun ownership that had the strongest relationship.”

Currently, 38 percent of U.S. households have at least one gun, the survey showed. As a result, many officers get shot while responding to domestic disturbance calls.

“States where firearms are more prevalent, officers responding to reports of domestic violence are more often entering potentially lethal situations compared to officers responding to such calls in states with lower firearm prevalence,” Swedler said in the statement.

The study comes amid an ongoing debate over gun violence in the United States. A recent report, which analyzed over 60 mass murders in the country between 1982 and 2012, found that in most cases, guns were obtained legally. More recently, following a shooting spree in Charleston, South Carolina, where 9 people were shot dead at a church, voices calling for implementation of tougher gun controls have become stronger.

Last month, U.S. President Barack Obama called the lack of “commonsense gun safety laws” in the country one of his greatest frustrations.

“If you look at the number of Americans killed since 9/11 by terrorism, it's less than 100. If you look at the number that have been killed by gun violence, it's in the tens of thousands,” Obama said in a BBC interview.