Commentary June 11, 2020

Coronavirus Could Make America’s Gun Problem Even Deadlier

Several myths cloud public understanding of the connection between guns and suicide. Perhaps the most pernicious is the idea that people who really want to end their lives will find a way to do it, making the presence or absence of a gun somewhat irrelevant. Decades of research on suicide tell a different story.
Getty Images

Millions of Americans have experienced the coronavirus pandemic directly, as they or their loved ones suffered through infection. But for most of us, the experience is defined by weeks and months on end stuck at home. The shut-ins are testing the safety of our home environments. Stress and isolation combined with another feature of American life — easy access to firearms — could form a deadly brew.

Last week we released results of a new study — the largest ever on the connection between suicide and handgun ownership — in The New England Journal of Medicine revealing that gun owners were nearly four times as likely to die by suicide than people without guns, even when controlling for gender, age, race and neighborhood.

In this New York Times OpEd piece by myself, Matthew Miller and Garen Wintemute, we write that suicide attempts are often impulsive, prompted by fleeting crises. A vast majority of people who attempt suicide survive and do not go on to die in a future suicide. But whether attempters get that second chance at life depends a lot on the method they use, which in turn depends on what is readily at hand. Firearms afford few second chances. In sum, methods matter.

Our study compiled information on 26 million Americans over 12 years. We tracked handgun acquisitions in a large sample of California residents and then compared the frequency of death among those who did and didn’t own them.

The elevated suicide rates among handgun owners were driven by their higher rates of suicide by firearm — eight times higher for men and 35 times higher for women, compared with non-owners of the same gender. By contrast, handgun owners did not have higher rates of suicide from other methods or higher rates of death by other causes. These results are consistent with those from every serious study that has examined the relationship between gun access and suicide in the United States. If anything, we find a stronger connection than most others have.

Read the Editorial

David Studdert, LLB, ScD, MPH

Professor of Medicine and Law
David M. Studdert is a leading expert in health law.

read more

News

Owning Handgun Associated With Dramatically Higher Risk of Suicide

Men who own handguns are eight times more likely to die of suicide by handgun than men who don’t have one — and women who own handguns are 35 times more likely than women who don’t, according to startling new research led by SHP's David Studdert.
Commentary

Covid-19 Crisis: Is a Showdown Between Public Health Imperatives and Civil Liberties Inevitable?

David Studdert addresses the tradeoff between basic liberties and societal health in the current coronavirus pandemic in a New England Journal of Medicine perspective.
Commentary

The Ethics and Law Behind So-Called Immunity Passports

David Studdert writes in this JAMA Viewpoint that, ideally, a clear scientific understanding and careful deliberation would precede any public or private policy that selectively relaxes restrictions based on positive tests for COVID-19 antibodies. But a measured, evidence-based approach to policymaking is likely to be overrun by hopes and demands for antibody testing.