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A large new study confirms what mental health experts and those who research firearms have known for some time: Owning a handgun vastly increases one’s risk of suicide.

The research, published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, goes beyond what smaller past studies have shown, however, by capturing suicide risk down to the individual level.


“This is really a groundbreaking paper,” said Michael Siegel, a public health researcher at the Boston University School of Public Health, who was not involved in the study.

Stanford University researchers tracked more than 26 million men and women in California who were 21 and older and who hadn’t owned guns before October 2004. A little under 3% of the cohort, or 676,425 people, became gun owners between then and 2016. The risk of suicide in this group was higher — around nine times so — than among non-owners. Those who died by suicide using a firearm — 6,691 people out of 17,894 total suicides — tended to be male, white, and of middle age (mean age of 41 years).

Those findings fall in line with past research on gun ownership and suicide risk. Previous studies have drawn conclusions by correlating city- or state-level data on firearm ownership and suicide rates, Siegel explained, but this study shows “individual risk increases [with gun ownership], not just the risk at the population level.” The size of the study, too, gives it more weight.


“This is a huge population and represents, so it’s one of the largest studies — probably the largest study — that’s been done,” Siegel said. “The sheer sample size of the study makes it absolutely unique. For that reason, I think the findings are unassailable [and] as definitive as you can possibly be in terms of the research.”

To arrive at their findings, the study authors linked data on handgun transfers (which include purchases from licensed firearms dealers) with data from the state’s voter registration database, which has up-to-date information on whether voters are alive or dead. Starting in October 2004, the authors retrospectively followed the 26 million individuals included in their cohort through December 2016.

“We know so little about firearms owners since there’s no way of tracking that on a national level,” said Claire Houtsma, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi, who researches access to firearms and was not involved in the study. “It’s such a complex issue and people don’t want their firearms tracked, so just the fact that they have this [information] is interesting.”

The study also found that among males, gun owners had an eight times higher suicide risk than non-owners. Among female gun owners, that risk was more than 35 times higher.

As for what could explain these sharp differences, “women attempt suicide more often than men,” said David Studdert, a Stanford health policy researcher and lead author of the study. However, women tend to use methods that are much less lethal than the methods that men use, he said. But “When you combine [that] high propensity to attempt [suicide] with a very lethal means — and familiarity or access to that mean — that may drive that rate for women way up.”

Further patterns emerged when Studdert and his team investigated what happened right as people bought guns. Among those who purchased one, “the risk is immediately high in the weeks following the purchase,” he said.

Of the 1,200 owners who died by suicide using a handgun over the study period, roughly 1 in 7 suicides occurred within the first month of buying it — which included the 10-day waiting period mandated by California law when purchasing a gun. “And that shows that some people have intentions to die by suicide when purchasing a gun,” Studdert said.

Shraddha Chakradhar/STAT Source: NEJM 2020; 382:2220-2229

However, the vast majority of suicides by firearm among gun owners happened a year or more after purchasing the weapon. “It provides support for extreme risk protection orders, or ‘red flag’ laws,” said Siegel. These laws allow a family member or law enforcement official to petition a judge to temporarily take away guns from someone who exhibits suicidal ideations or seems to present a danger to others. “Research shows that this does save lives,” Siegel said.

Still, the findings only represent one state, and may not be entirely generalizable. “California is one of the states with the most restrictive firearm laws,” said Houtsma. Those wishing to purchase a gun are only allowed to do so from a licensed dealer, and have to wait 10 days before they get the firearm. “I would guess that other states [with looser laws] have even larger magnitudes of findings,” she said.

Studdert, who shared that this was the first analysis to come out of a five-year study that aims to analyze the secondhand effects of having guns at home, said that the team’s next goal is to look at homicide and accidental deaths to see the combined effect of these deaths and suicides on a household level.

Another future step might also be a state-by-state comparison, Siegel said.

“It would be tremendously valuable to have similar studies done across multiple states to be able to compare whether or not there are differences based on state firearm laws,” he said.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (Español: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

  • I am not surprised that people are feeling isolated and dejected enough to take their own life in CA. Being a gun owner in CA you have to put up with arbitrary laws that do nothing to lower crime (if anything it increased) you have to put up with hundreds, sometimes thousands of “concerned” Karen’s calling you baby killer or nazi everyday because they don’t like your hobby. You get profiled as a criminal for enjoying a fundamental human right….

  • Breaking news!!! Car ownership vastly increases one risk of dying in a car accident……. also bicycle ownership vastly increases ones chance of dying by bike accident….. did you also know that walking in the road as opposed to a trail vastly increases ones chance of being struck by a car?….. these people are clowns who write these articles to do nothing more than attack ones right to protect themselves….. then left wing rags publish them and leftists read them and consider there ideas superior because it is backed by “science” and ” research”…… same crap they do with the coming ice age, I mean global warming, I mean climate change, o no what’s the proper leftist lingo now? The “science” is giving me whip lash!

  • The graph itself shows there is no cause / effect relationship. If there was, the longer you owned it, the more suicides you would see. Instead suicides peak in the first 3 years of ownership. In other words, suicidal ideation, not guns, are responsible…and these people would overdose or find some other way to kill themselves if they hadn’t bought a gun. More bad politically correct science living off the government’s dollar.

  • Losing your job, your business, your ability to make a living, or make your mortgage payment or pay your rent, or put food on the table increases the risk of suicide. And because China lied early on about the Pandeic and about the lack of evidence for human to human transmission and allowed Wuhan residents to fly all over the world, we now have int the USA over 100,000 deaths attributed to Covid-19 and 40 million Americans unemployed. Many of the suicides will be of younger and more healthy people. All lives are valuable but not equally valuable. I think the approach in Sweden will retrospectively be amongthe better approaches that various nationshave used to combat the virus. Interesting that TheCommunist Chinese Government cause a worldwide Human Catastrophe and the MSM wants to blame President Trump. Early and correct information that the virus is “loose”in one’s nation is critical to making a timely and appropriate response!

  • Cue the defensive statements from the uneducated conservative right about how the evidence/study/analysis is wrong, and what about Hillary’s emails. The US is such a messed up country, easy access to guns is one contributing factor.

  • This sounds more like people with suicidal thoughts or tendencies are more likely to purchase guns. Seems to me that causation is reversed from the headline.

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