Handgun ownership is a ‘major risk factor’ for suicide

Owning a handgun is linked to a substantially increased risk of suicide, a large study released Wednesday found.

Researchers tracked 26.3 million California residents over a 12-year period and found that handgun ownership was associated with a four-fold increase overall in the risk of suicide, with the risk driven by higher rates of firearm suicide in particular. Handgun owners did not have higher rates of suicide by other methods, results showed.

When the data were analyzed by gender, men who owned handguns were eight times more likely to die of self-inflicted gunshot wounds than men who didn’t own handguns, while women handgun owners were 35 times more likely to die of firearm suicide than other women, according to the study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The study “confirms what many in the scientific community have been saying for some time, that access to firearms, particularly handguns, is a major risk factor for suicide,” study author David Studdert, a professor of medicine and law at Stanford University, told NBC News.

“That’s something that we think prospective gun buyers and gun owners ought to know,” Studdert said.

It’s previously been observed that men are more likely to die by suicide than women, and also that women make more suicide attempts than men but with less lethal methods.

In the new study, men accounted for 70 percent of the total suicides and 83 percent of the suicides by firearm.

But the new findings indicate the presence of a highly lethal firearm may increase a woman’s suicide risk significantly, the researchers said.

The study is the largest to date to look at the relationship between handgun ownership and suicide risk, and the first to follow people from the time they purchased their first handguns, the researchers said. People in the study were followed for an average of seven years.

The researchers studied a cohort of registered voters in California from October 2004 to December 2016. None of the adults ages 21 or older owned a handgun before the study, but 676,425 purchased one or more handguns during the study period.

Almost 1.5 million people died during the study. Of the 17,894 people who died by suicide, 6,691 were by firearms.

The researchers were not able to determine which types of firearms were involved in the suicides, but they tried to account for the possibility that some people may have used long guns.

The United States has one of the highest rates of suicide by firearm, the researchers noted, with government figures indicating that in 2018 there were 24,432 firearm suicides. Statistics show that handguns are used in about three-quarters of firearm suicides.

The new study saw firearm suicides peak within the first few weeks of handgun ownership, suggesting some people may have intended to harm themselves when they bought the guns, Studdert said. But about half of the firearm suicides occurred more than a year after purchase.

Ken Norton, a spokesperson for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, and executive director of NAMI New Hampshire, said the new findings are consistent with previous research and “question the prevailing notion that people feel safer when they have a firearm.”

While people may contemplate suicide for long periods of time, when they decide to take their lives they may act quickly, Norton said, and having easy access to lethal firearms in the home can prove fatal.

“If you’re a firearm owner and you have had thoughts of suicide or you’re not doing well, ask a friend to hold your guns for a while,” Norton advised. “You make that admission to protect yourself and your family.”

Starting a conversation about suicide concerns may be difficult but it also can be lifesaving, emphasized Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

She urged anyone who is contemplating suicide to seek help immediately to get through the crisis safely. “It’s the hardest time to reach out because they may feel that nobody really cares,” she said. “They may even make the mistake of thinking that people would be better off without them.”

Family and friends who see loved ones struggling should try to reach out to them, too, Harkavy-Friedman said. “If you’re worried about somebody, it is important to have a conversation with them,” she said, to talk about seeking care and restricting access to lethal means such as guns.

Norton said that with so much going on in the world today — the coronavirus pandemic, job losses and now racial tensions and civil unrest — he’s concerned about the state of the nation’s mental health. Adding to the worry is the spike in gun sales that began at the beginning of the coronavirus lockdowns in March, he said.

“It’s very concerning,” Norton said. “Probably many of those folks are new gun owners and they may not be as familiar with safe storage or handling of a firearm. And just from the statistics that we see in the new study in terms of the increased risk when there is a firearm present in the home, and with kids being home from school and people under these stay-at-home orders, it is of concern.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

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