Buying a Handgun Significantly Increases Risk of Suicide
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
"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."