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Buying a Handgun Significantly Increases Risk of Suicide

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WebMD Health News

Nov. 17, 1999 (Cleveland) -- The purchase of a handgun is associated with an increased risk for suicide by any method, but when a woman purchases a handgun it is tantamount to stepping before a firing squad, says Garen J. Wintemute, MD, MPH. Wintemute's study of the impact of firearm purchase on mortality appears in Thursday's issue of TheNew England Journal of Medicine.

"We were astonished to see an almost 40-fold increase in the risk for gun suicide in the first year after [women] buy a gun," Wintemute tells WebMD. "The increase lasted for the 6 years of the study. And a woman's risk of homicide from a gun was doubled, suggesting for me that women who may be under threat or stress from partner abuse are purchasing a gun for self-protection ... but the purchase adds to the threat."

Wintemute, a professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine and the director of the violence prevention program at the University of California, Davis, and his team conducted a study of mortality among more than 230,000 people in California who purchased a handgun in 1991. In California, the state requires a 15-day waiting period for handgun purchases, so the observation period began when the buyer took possession of the gun and continued through Dec. 31, 1996.

Wintemute says that during the first year of handgun ownership, "suicide was the leading cause of death for the buyers, accounting for 24.5% of all deaths and 52% of deaths among women aged 21 to 44." In the first week after buying a gun, the rate of suicide among new gun owners was 57 times as high as the adjusted rate in the general population. Compared to the general population, handgun purchasers continued to be at higher risk for suicide by a handgun during the 6 years of the study.

According to Wintemute, the greatly increased risk of gun suicide following purchase might lead some to suggest the use of a screening tool to identify suicidal ideation or intent. "But," he says. "even if the screening test were 99% sensitive and 99% specific -- and there is no such test -- only 7% of the people who committed suicide would have been identified. For every person correctly labeled, 13 would be falsely identified. That's a screening that just won't fly."

A better approach to reducing handgun suicide, says Wintemute, is to reduce the availability of the means to commit suicide rather than focusing on high risk people. "A good example is coal-heating gas in England. There were many suicides by coal gas because there was easy access and it was simple. When it was replaced by a less lethal gas, suicides by gassing went down and suicides by other means didn't increase."

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