‘Surge buyers’ of guns more likely to think of suicide

A customer purchases a gun at Freddie Bear Sports on April 08, 2021 in Tinley Park, Illinois. (Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

People who purchased firearms during the 2020–2021 purchasing surge—particularly first-time buyers—were more likely to have thoughts of suicide, according to a new study.

Researchers surveyed 6,404 adults from New Jersey, Minnesota, and Mississippi and found that surge purchasers were more likely than other firearm owners and non-firearm owners to report suicidal thoughts during their lifetime, the previous year, and previous month.

Although firearm access is associated with a risk for suicide, the study found that first-time firearm owners who purchased a gun during this period were more likely than established firearm owners to report lifetime and past-year suicidal ideation.

According to the study, about 6% of US residents purchased a firearm between March 2020 and mid-July 2020. Of these, 34% were first-time buyers, a rate higher than typical. The states in the study were chosen due to their difference in geography, demographics, political climate, firearm ownership rates, firearm purchasing laws, gun violence rates, and culture.

The COVID-19 pandemic as well as the contentious election season and the racial justice movement after the death of George Floyd fueled this unprecedented surge in firearm sales over the last year throughout the United States, researchers say.

The study’s findings include:

  • Of surge purchasers, 56 have experienced lifetime suicidal thoughts compared to 32% of non-firearm owners and 28% of other firearm owners.
  • Over the past year, 42% of surge purchasers reported suicidal thoughts versus 23% of non-firearm owners and 18% of other firearm owners.
  • Also, 20% of surge purchasers reported suicidal thoughts in the past month compared to 11% of non-firearm owners and 7% of other firearm owners. Almost 40% of these buyers store at least one firearm unlocked.
  • Surge purchasers were more likely than other firearm owners to use locking devices (36% vs. 26%), but less likely to store firearms unloaded in a closet or drawer (22% vs. 30%).
  • Among surge purchasers, first-time firearm owners were less likely than established firearm owners to use gun safes (39% vs. 52%) or store loaded firearms hidden in a closet or drawer (11% vs. 18%). In contrast, first-time firearm owners were more likely to use locking devices (42% vs. 29%).

“These findings highlight that individuals who made the decision to become firearm owners during the purchasing surge exhibit a higher risk for suicidal thoughts than typical firearm owners,” says Michael Anestis, associate professor at the Rutgers University School of Public Health, executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center, and lead author of the study in JAMA Network Open.

“The fact that suicidal thoughts were particularly common among surge purchasers who became first time firearm owners is an important consideration given data demonstrating an elevated suicide rate in the months following the first acquisition of a firearm.”

The study illustrates the need to implement policies and interventions that increase safety among firearm purchasers, such as safe firearm storage and temporary storage of firearms away from home during times of stress, as well as policies that promote different forms of protection, such as home alarm systems.

“This approach needs to be supplemented with practical tools such as information on different options for safe firearm storage, incentives for both retailer and consumer to purchase safe storage equipment, and information on where firearm owners can legally and temporarily store firearms outside the home,” Anestis says.

He also called for better legislation on safe storage, waiting periods, and mandating of suicide risk screening questions during firearm purchases.

Source: Rutgers University