Is owning a handgun a risk factor suicide?

If an individual owns a handgun, is he or she more at risk of suicide? If you are a therapist working with depressed clients or with those people who have other risk factors for violence, that question could have life or death consequences. Previous research on this question has either been conducted with small samples or over a limited period of time. The eight authors of this study, led by David M. Studdert, LL.B., Sc.D., planned and carried out a very ambitious study that looked at more than 26 million California residents over a 12-year period. The researchers, who were affiliated with Stanford University School of Law, Standard School of Medicine, the University of California at Davis, and other colleges, used survival analysis to estimate the relationship between handgun ownership and mortality, including death by suicide. The results were reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in early June, 2020.

Of the individuals followed in this study, 676,000 acquired one or more handguns during the study period, and 1.4 million died over the length of the study. Of those who died, almost 18,000 died by suicide and nearly 6,700 were suicides by firearm. The researchers found that rates of suicide by any method were higher among handgun owners. It turns out that the risk of suicide by firearm among handgun owners peaked immediately after the first acquisition of a gun, however, more than half of suicides by firearm among handgun owners occurred more than one year after they acquired a handgun.

The researchers, thus, concluded that owning a handgun is associated with a greatly elevated and enduring risk of suicide by firearm. Furthermore, they agreed with previous research that suicide attempts are often impulsive acts, driven by transient life crises. Although many attempts at suicide are not fatal, whether a suicide attempt is fatal depends, for the most part, on the lethality of the method used – and firearms are extremely lethal. 
Looking at the study results for women, the finding was that women accounted for only 16% of all suicides by firearm. In general, women had substantially lower suicide rates than men. However, the risk of suicide by firearm among female handgun owners – as compared with female nonowners of guns – was substantially greater than that among male handgun owners (as compared with male nonowners). Women attempt suicide more frequently than men but have fewer completed suicides, largely because the means they tend to use are often less lethal methods than those used by men. Unfortunately, when women own handguns, this imposes a particularly high relative risk of suicide because of the pairing of their higher propensity to attempt suicide with ready access to and familiarity with an extremely lethal method.

To read the complete article, go to: 
Handgun Ownership and Suicide in California

Written by James Windell, MA

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