How do gun laws affect suicide rates?

September 28, 2018

Over the last two decades, suicide rates have risen dramatically across the country. And while firearms are used in less than 10 percent of all suicide attempts, they account for more than half of all suicide deaths. Gun violence and mass shootings make frequent headlines, but nearly two-thirds of firearm deaths are the result of suicide, not homicide. 

Restricting access to lethal means, at least temporarily, during a time of crisis can prevent suicide. Even if one wishing to attempt suicide were to substitute a different method, he or she is far more likely to survive that attempt because firearms are the most lethal means available. And the vast majority of individuals who survive a suicide attempt do not go on to die from suicide in the future.

While suicide prevention requires a holistic approach, there are evidence-based gun policies that are associated with reductions in firearms suicide:

Permit-to-purchase laws (also known as handgun purchaser licensing or PTP) create a robust system to screen out prohibited individuals (whether it be for severe mental illness or criminal history) and hold gun sellers accountable by only allowing them to sell to someone with a valid license. These laws are associated with reductions in firearms suicide – this could be related to delaying acquisition of a firearm during a time of crisis or access to more records by state and local law enforcement enabling them to better identify those who may be at risk of harming themselves. These laws are particularly relevant for first-time handgun purchasers or those who otherwise do not have ready access to a firearm

Waiting periods have been found to be associated with lower rates of firearm suicide. These laws require an individual to wait a certain number of days after purchasing a handgun before the purchaser can take possession of the gun. Waiting periods can delay the impulsive purchase of a handgun, which could reduce the likelihood that gun would be used in a suicide attempt if the moment of crisis passes prior to the purchaser taking possession of the gun.

Child Access Prevention (CAP) laws require that gun owners store their guns in a manner that prevents unauthorized or unsupervised access to firearms by youth or adolescents under a certain age. More than 40 percent of fatal suicides by those age 17 and younger are committed with a firearm. Restricting access to the most lethal means among a high-risk group is an important step to prevent youth suicide. States with CAP laws have rates of youth firearm suicide that are eight percent lower than states without these laws.

Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPO, sometimes referred to as ‘red flags’ laws) allow for family members or police to petition for the temporary removal of firearms from individuals exhibiting behaviors that indicate they are at risk of harming themselves or others. These laws provide due process through the court, and firearms can be returned to the individual when the risk has passed. Evaluations of ERPOs suggest that they are protective against firearm suicide.

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