MONDAY, Jan. 20, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- You're more likely to kill yourself or be killed if you have access to a gun, a new study contends.
People with access to a gun are three times more likely to commit suicide and almost twice as likely to be the victim of a homicide as people without a firearm available, according to the report published Jan. 20 in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.
"If you have a firearm readily available and something bad has happened to you, you might make a rash, impulsive decision that will have a bad outcome," said study lead author Andrew Anglemyer. He is a specialist in study design and data analytics in clinical pharmacy and global health sciences at the University of California, San Francisco.
The issue of firearm accessibility garnered lots of attention following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., when 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six adults.
Lanza's mother has been described as a gun enthusiast who owned at least a dozen firearms and often took her son to a local shooting range for target practice, according to published reports. Lanza shot his mother dead before going to the elementary school, where he went on his killing spree before committing suicide, authorities said.
The new report analyzed the results of 15 previous gun studies, 13 of which were done in the United States. Gun ownership is higher in the United States than anywhere else in the world, and 31,000 U.S. deaths each year are attributable to firearms, according to background information included in the study.
The review specifically looked at intentional acts of violence rather than incidents of accidental death due to firearms. The researchers also adjusted the earlier studies' results to account for the likelihood that mental illness could be the cause of violence.
"These are just normal gun owners, and we are seeing that gun owners are making very bad, impulsive decisions," said Anglemyer, who is a U.S. Army veteran.
Based on these results, people should try to limit access to firearms for a friend or loved one who is going through a rough patch in their life and experiencing emotional turmoil, said David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at Harvard University.
"If someone's going through a bad period, you should at least lock the gun up -- or, even better, get the gun out of the house -- until things get better," said Hemenway, who wrote an editorial that accompanied the study.
Men and women had striking differences in their personal risk when guns are around, the researchers found.
Men were nearly four times more likely to commit suicide when firearms were accessible than when they were not accessible. (Women are more likely to use poison as a means of suicide, according to previous research.)
At the same time, women were almost three times more likely to be victims of homicide, most likely due to a fatal shooting prompted by a domestic argument, the researchers said.
"The evidence is strong that a gun in the home increases the risk that a woman will die during a domestic dispute," said Hemenway, who is also director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.
Despite the results, Anglemyer said the purpose of the study was not to discourage gun ownership.
"This isn't a study about how bad guns are. It's really about understanding the risks of owning a gun," he said. "I'm providing the evidence and letting people make their own decisions. Understand there's a risk, and as long as you understand the risk, that's the most important thing."
Although the review found an association between access to guns and dying from murder or suicide, it did not prove cause-and-effect.
In his editorial, Hemenway argued that the risk is understated in Anglemyer's research because the review excluded studies that looked at gun risk in whole populations rather than individuals.
For example, studies were not included that showed places with higher levels of household gun ownership have higher rates of firearm suicide.
"They made a very strong case, but I would argue that the case is even stronger," Hemenway said.
The National Rifle Association did not respond to a request for comment on the research.
For more information on gun violence prevention, visit the American Public Health Association.