Unsecured Handguns and Suicide in the U.S.

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Unsecured Handguns and Suicide in the U.S.

Jim Windell


            Who are those people who are most likely to use a firearm in a suicide attempt? And do these suicide attempts have any association with how and where guns are stored?

           Nationwide, firearms account for more than half of all suicide deaths each year and research has repeatedly demonstrated the risk for death by suicide is elevated for every individual living in a home with firearms. Researchers have suggested that to minimize this risk, tools like lethal means counseling is needed to ensure that individuals store their firearms securely – locked and unloaded. Policies that promote legal storage of firearms away from home, they say, should also be considered. But are researchers who promote safe storage of guns on the right track? Will better storage of handguns lead to fewer suicides?

           To address these questions, researchers from Rutgers University conducted a study by examining data from the National Violent Death Reporting System. The deaths of 117,126 individuals who died by firearm suicide between 2003 and 2018 were reviewed for this study.

           In an article in Death Studies, the researchers report that they looked at the circumstances of the deaths and then these death scene narratives with information from death certificates and interviews with loved ones of the decedents. This intent of this approach was to determine the type of firearm used, how that firearm had been stored and where on their bodies the individuals shot themselves.

           What was found was that in the majority of the deaths, the victims used a handgun (65.3%) that they themselves owned (77.1%) and which was stored loaded (63.1%) and unlocked (59.1%). In a large majority of instances of suicide, the individuals died from wounds to the head (81.4%), with chest injuries accounting for the bulk of the remaining deaths. Men were twice as likely as women to use a rifle in their death and were more likely to store their firearms unlocked. Younger individuals also were more likely to have used firearms that had been stored unlocked – which may indicate they were accessing unsecured firearms owned by their parents.

           There were few differences between individuals of various racial identities. However, those who died by suicide who identified as American Indian/Alaskan Native were far more likely than those who identified as white to use a rifle or shotgun in their suicide death. This pattern is likely explained in part by firearm ownership and use (e.g., hunting) differences between these two groups. Although the vast majority of firearm suicide deaths resulted from wounds to the head, one consistent finding was that those who died from gunshot wounds to areas of the body other than the head tended to be female. Those who died from wounds to the chest or abdomen tended to be younger.

           According to senior author Michael Anestis, executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers, “These results highlight that, more often than not, unsecured handguns are the driving force in firearm suicide in America.”

           Anestis, also an associate professor at Rutgers School of Public Health added, “That said, some groups – like men and individuals who identify as American Indian/Alaskan native – are more likely than their peers to use long guns in their suicide death. As we encourage secure firearm storage and storing firearms away from home during times of stress, it is important to discuss more than just handguns, particularly with certain individuals.”

           Although handguns account for the majority of firearm suicides, it is vital that conversations about secure storage include discussions of rifles and handguns – particularly within certain communities.

           These findings highlight the powerful role that secure firearm storage could play in firearm suicide prevention. That includes efforts to prevent suicide among children and adolescents – a group that typically access their parents’ unsecured firearms. Anestis pointed out that “If we can shift social norms on securing firearms and if we can provide easy paths toward legally storing firearms away from home during times of stress, we have an opportunity to prevent thousands of tragedies every year. Doing this requires not only that we understand the disproportionate role of unsecure firearms, but that we acknowledge the risk that comes from rifles and shotguns, particularly in communities in which hunting is common.”

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Bond, A.E., Karnick, A.T., Bandel, S.L., Capron, D.W. & Anestis, M.D. (2022). Demographic differences in the type of firearm and location of bodily injury in firearm suicide decedents. Death Studies, DOI: 10.1080/07481187.2022.2144547

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