Youth suicides happen more often in U.S. states with high rates of household gun ownership, a recent study found.
In the 10 states with the highest youth suicide rates, 53 percent of households owned guns. In the 10 states with the lowest youth suicide rates, only 20 percent of households owned guns, according to the study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Researchers from Boston University School of Public Health analyzed household gun ownership in all 50 states in 2004 and youth suicide rates between 2005 and 2015.
The highest rate of household gun ownership in 2004 was in Wyoming (65.5 percent); the lowest was in Hawaii (10.2 percent).
Over the next 10 years, the youth suicide rate ranged from a high of 15.2 per 100,000 youth in Alaska to a low of 2.6 per 100,000 in New Jersey.
After accounting for more than a dozen sociodemographic and health factors that can contribute to suicide risk - such as depression, alcoholism, substance abuse and education - the researchers found that for each 10 percentage-point increase in a state’s rate of household gun ownership, the youth suicide rate went up by nearly 27 percent.
Higher levels of household gun ownership were associated with higher rates of overall youth suicide - not necessarily suicide by firearm, the research team found.
Dr. Michael Siegel, the senior author of the study, told Reuters Health that while earlier studies have found household firearm ownership to be linked with youth suicide rates at the state level, the link could potentially be explained by those households simply having a higher prevalence of people with depression, suicidal ideation or suicidal behaviors.
“We found that the relationship persisted even after controlling for these variables,” Siegel said in an email. “This suggests that the association is due to the increased availability and access to a highly lethal means of suicide.”
Lowering the prevalence of household gun ownership might help prevent youth suicides, the authors suggest.
Cathy Barber of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who wasn’t involved with the study, offered a different perspective.
Rather than assuming the answer must be more restrictive gun laws, she said, “The work that I think holds more promise right now is for opinion leaders in the gun-owning community . . . to promote that a basic tenet of firearm safety is ensuring your guns aren’t accessible to a person who is at risk for suicide.”
Barber told Reuters Health by email that gun owners are often diligent about keeping their guns secure when their kids are little but ease up when children become teenagers, precisely the age when their risk for both unintentional shootings and for suicide goes up.
In the current study, however, the proportion of gun households with unlocked and loaded firearms wasn’t linked with youth suicide rates.
Data on gun ownership, suicide risk factors and suicide rates, respectively, came from the 2004 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, in which a representative sample of adults in each state were interviewed by telephone; the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, an in-school survey administered every odd year to a representative sample of youth in ninth through 12th grades in each state; and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Vital Statistics program.
Among the study’s limitations is that much of the data came from surveys, which are not necessarily reliable.
The authors say further research is needed to determine whether public policies might help limit youth access to firearms and result in subsequent reductions in youth deaths by suicide.