A police officer displays a handgun checked in during a community gun buy-back program.
A handgun is checked in during a community gun buy-back program in White Plains, New York, April 13, 2018. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

A new study finds a striking correlation at the state level between rates of household gun ownership and youth suicide.

When we think about gun deaths in the United States, mass shootings and murders may come to mind first. But guns are also a leading method of suicide, especially and tragically among young people. In 2016, nearly 60 percent of all firearm deaths were suicides, according to the CDC. In that same year, more than 1,100 young people between the ages of 10 and 19 died by suicide by firearm. In 2017, 43.1 percent of youth suicides involved a firearm.

Now, a detailed study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine documents the close link between higher suicide rates among youth (between the ages of 10 and 19) and higher levels of household gun ownership. A team of public-health researchers at Boston University found that for each 10-percent increase in household gun ownership in a U.S. state, the youth suicide rate (overall, not just firearm-related) increased by more than 25 percent.

The study tracks the connection between youth suicide and household gun ownership across U.S. states from 2005 to 2015. Its authors used data from the CDC’s Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System, derived from death certificates, to measure the overall suicide rate for young people in each state. They identified the prevalence of guns in the home via the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a survey of more than 300,000 Americans as of 2004 (the most recent data available).

There are striking similarities between the two maps below, of household gun-ownership rates and youth suicide rates. The four states with the highest youth suicide rates—Alaska, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana—also have the highest rates of firearm ownership. Likewise, three of the four states with the lowest rates of youth suicide—New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island—are in the bottom four for levels of gun ownership.

a map of firearm ownership by state
Source: CDC (David H. Montgomery/CityLab)
a map of youth suicide rates by state in the United States
Source: CDC (David H. Montgomery / CityLab)

But the study goes far beyond this—and beyond previous research—by controlling for a broad range of factors that might affect youth suicide rates. (That’s important, because gun-rights advocates have consistently argued for the influence of other factors, not necessarily guns or guns in the home.) Such factors include differences between states in youth suicide attempts; rates of depression, drug use, and binge drinking; and socioeconomic factors, such as race, poverty, unemployment, and the divorce rate. (Note: the visual representations included in this article reflect the raw data and not the extensive controls used in the study.)

Controlling for all these factors, the study finds a clear, significant, and consistent association between household gun ownership and youth suicide across states. The more gun ownership in a state, the higher the rate of youth suicide. Furthermore, based on their statistical analysis, the researchers can say with 95-percent confidence that, for each 10 percent increase in household gun ownership, the youth suicide rate increased by at least 14 percent and at most by nearly 40 percent. (This range is called a confidence interval.) The prevalence of household gun ownership explains the variation in youth suicide rates between states more than any other factor.

A scatterplot graph, below, compares the youth suicide rate to the rate of household gun ownership. The fitted line slopes steeply to the right, illustrating a strong statistical connection.

The study also looks carefully at what researchers have dubbed a “substitution effect,” by which the prevalence of guns would cause a change from other methods to guns, but not in the overall youth suicide rate. It did not find evidence of this. As stated in the study, “a higher prevalence of gun ownership is not associated with merely a shift from non-firearm to firearm suicide, but instead it is actually associated with an increase in the overall suicide rate.” Michael Siegel, one of the study’s authors, noted, “Suicide among youth can be an impulsive behavior. If you can get past that moment of time, you can have a change of mood. Other methods are not as quick or lethal [as guns].”

Ultimately, the study finds that higher levels of household gun ownership were associated with both higher rates of firearm-related youth suicide and youth suicide overall. “People tend not to think about firearms when they think about how we can prevent youth suicides. The single biggest risk factor is access to a gun,” Siegel emphasized.

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