By Linda Carroll

(Reuters Health) – Shots from high caliber firearms are more likely to kill, a new study suggests.

Researchers wading into the gun control debate have shown that people shot by criminals wielding a higher caliber gun are more likely to die than those shot with a small caliber weapon, according to a report in JAMA Network Open.

“There’s the old adage that guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” said lead author Anthony Braga, distinguished professor and director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston. “That’s not quite right. People do kill people and their intent matters. But above and beyond that, the type of weapon they use matters greatly.”

Think about it this way, Braga said: “If three people are equally committed to killing someone and one has a firearm, one has a knife and the third goes at it with his bare hands, the likelihood the attack would be lethal would vary with the weapon they used.”

To determine whether gun caliber was related to deadliness of a shooting, Braga and colleagues pulled data from 2010 through 2014 from the criminal investigation files of the Boston Police Department.

During that time, there were 220 gun homicides and a much larger number of non-fatal shootings. To winnow that number down, the researchers randomly selected 60 non-fatal cases from each year.

The police had determined the caliber of the weapon used in 183 of the fatal cases and 184 of the nonfatal cases. The weapons were divided into three groups by caliber: small (.22, .25 and .32), medium (.38, .380 and 9mm) and large (.357 magnum, .40, .44 magnum, .45, 10mm and 7.62 x 39mm).

The researchers determined that caliber of the gun had no systematic relationship with the number of wounds, the location of the wounds, the circumstances of the assault or the victim characteristics.

The caliber was, however, related to whether the shooting would be fatal. Gunshot victims were nearly five times as likely to die when a large caliber gun was used, versus a small caliber weapon. Similarly, victims were more than twice as likely to die if a medium caliber gun was used compared to a small caliber weapon.

“This study was not designed to say we need to pass a particular type of gun control legislation,” Braga said. “But it’s really addressing a foundational issue: would gun control matter in reducing homicides?”

The new study is “very compelling,” said David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at Harvard University’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center in Boston.

“This is one piece of evidence about something that seems so clear,” Hemenway said. “Better weapons kill more people. If you go to war with a machine versus a pitchfork, will you be able to kill more people?”

When people say, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” they’re focusing the discussion on the intent of the shooter, Hemenway said. But the outcome isn’t just dependent on intent, he said.

“If you give terrorists nuclear weapons, they will be able to kill more people than they would if they just had traditional explosives,” Hemenway said. “And if you’re shot with a big bullet you’re more likely to die than if you were shot with a BB.”

Look at the statistics, Hemenway said. “Why are we so surprised that we have such high homicide rates?” he added. “We give everybody – crazy people, alcoholics, people with anger problems – a lethal weapon. If you make incredibly more lethal weapons, more people will die.”

SOURCE: JAMA Network Open, online July 27, 2018.