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Study: Handgun Ownership Raises Risk of Suicide

But critics of the research say there's no correlation

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 4, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Regions of the United States in which there are more handguns also have higher rates of suicide, a new study contends.

"Where there are more guns, there are more suicides," says David Hemenway, a gun violence expert at the Harvard University School of Public Health, and a co-author of the study. "It's not like people are hanging themselves or jumping off of bridges. The entire amount is due to more firearms" in areas with high suicide rates.

Hemenway and a colleague report their findings in the December issue of the journal Injury Prevention.

More than 29,000 Americans committed suicide in 2000, the last year for which figures are available, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The study researchers analyzed gun ownership, suicide rates and mental health statistics across nine regions of the country. Rates of serious depression and suicidal thoughts -- both of which are linked to suicide -- were collected from a national household survey of people aged 15 to 54 conducted in the early 1990s.

The researchers also considered four other factors -- urban living, education, unemployment, and alcohol consumption -- that affect suicide risk.

To determine a geographic region's suicide rate, they averaged its yearly rates from 1988 through 1997.

The number of suicides nationally ranged from nine per 100,000 people in the Mid-Atlantic region to 18 per 100,000 people in the Mountain states. Areas with more handguns -- Southern and Mountain states -- had higher suicide rates. Those regions with fewer firearms in homes -- such as the East Coast -- had lower rates.

The trend held up even after accounting for prevalence of depression and suicidal thoughts in a region, neither of which was associated with gun ownership.

A person's risk of suicide jumps in the few days after he or she purchases a gun, and many suicides are the climax of flashing passions, Hemenway says.

"But the vast majority are not from people who just went and bought the gun. They are people who have had guns available for years and years," he says.

But Gary Kleck, a gun violence expert at Florida State University, disputes Hemenway's conclusions.

"The vast majority of prior research indicates there's no effect of gun levels on suicide rates. It's a very consistent pattern," Kleck says.

Gun owners tend to be more self-reliant than non-gun owners, Kleck says, and people who are self-reliant are more prone to suicide. "They blame themselves when something goes wrong," he adds.

So it's not surprising to see higher rates of both gun ownership and suicide in states where self-reliance is prized. "There's no doubt that there is this cross-region association. It's just a question if its cause and effect," Kleck says.

What To Do

For more information on suicide, try the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention or Suicide Prevention Action Network USA.

SOURCES: David Hemenway, Ph.D., professor of health policy, Harvard University School of Public Health, Boston; Gary Kleck, Ph.D., professor of criminology and criminal justice, Florida State University, Tallahassee; December 2002 Injury Prevention
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