Owning a handgun significantly increases one's risk of suicide, according to a study published Thursday that tracked new gun owners in California for more than a decade.
Mental health experts and researchers have long known that gun ownership suggests an increased risk of suicide, but the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in June adds a new level of detail.
Researchers from Stanford University tracked more than 26 million people in California who did not own guns before Oct. 18, 2004. Just under 3%, or 676,425 people, became gun owners between Oct. 18, 2004, and Dec. 31, 2016. Nearly all were handguns. The risk of suicide in this group, researchers found, was about nine times higher than among non-gun owners. Nearly 18,000 people tracked in the study died by suicide. Roughly 7,000 of those deaths were by firearm suicide.
Dr. David Studdert, a health policy researcher at Stanford University and the lead investigator for the study, said he hopes the findings will help people make more informed choices about firearms, especially those purchased for self-defense.
"So that's a calculus based on the idea that having a gun, having access to a gun, will make the owner and the honest family safer," he said. "What I think this study helps shed light on is that it's a more complicated picture."
Studdert said an important aspect of the findings was that more than half of suicide deaths among handgun owners occurred more than a year after purchasing the weapon. That means it's not just impulsive buys by people in crisis contributing to suicides.
"We think that's extremely important because that speaks to the kind of environmental ever-present risk that access to a handgun poses to people in households that have them," he said.
The study offers unique insight because it operates at the individual, not population, level. That was possible in large part because California law requires gun sales to be reported to the state's Justice Department, which logs each transaction. The research team was able to use this state log to link gun purchases with voter registry data to track individuals over time. There is no federal gun registry.
The study echoes the long-known risk of firearm suicide. Roughly 60% of annual U.S. gun deaths are suicide. A record 24,432 people died by firearm suicide in 2018, according to the latest statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mass shootings, horrific as they are, represent a tiny fraction of gun deaths in America — while receiving outsized media coverage.
Though researchers charted the study population through 2016, it was published at an important time: The global COVID-19 pandemic is straining Americans' mental health while apparently spurring a surge in gun sales. And an estimated 2.5 million people who purchased guns, were first-time buyers, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation. That has led some experts to warn that we are at risk of a suicide epidemic.
Studdert said policymakers should take note when thinking about ways to reduce suicides, such as "red flag" laws, which allow judges or law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from people in crisis.
"We hope that this study will bring more attention to that kind of intervention," Studdert said.
And Dr. Michael Anestis, who leads New Jersey's Center On Gun Violence Research, said the findings are timely given estimates of recent first-time gun buyers.
"There is a certain risk associated with firearm access," he said. "And so there are ways that we can go about to lower that risk that doesn't blame the firearm for everything, that doesn't deny people their rights."
The study was funded by the Fund for a Safer Future and the Joyce Foundation, organizations that have funded gun violence prevention efforts and advocacy. It was also financed by internal funds from Stanford Law School and the Stanford University School of Medicine
For years researchers have charted a dearth of research into firearm-related topics, thanks in part to the chilling effect of a 1996 bill known as the Dickey Amendment, which prohibited federal funding of any research that promoted gun control. In December, Congress agreed to fund federal gun violence research for the first time in nearly a quarter-century.
This story was published June 4, 2020, for Guns & America, a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.