New research shines a light on potential risk factors for the country’s leading cause of gun death.
Researchers from the University of California Davis Violence Prevention Research Program published a new study this month examining whether there was an increased risk of suicide for handgun purchasers with past drug and alcohol charges. The study found that male gun owners with a history of alcohol-related crimes were at a much greater risk for suicide. The researchers, however, found no link between a history of drug charges and an increased risk of suicide.
“In this longitudinal study of men who legally purchased a handgun in California in 2001, those with prior alcohol charges at the time of purchase were at higher risk of suicide, including firearm suicide, for over a decade later,” the study said. “Risk was greatest among those with two or more alcohol arrests or convictions, among those whose last alcohol charge was in the year prior to their purchase in 2001, and in the two years following the index handgun purchase.”
The researchers were hopeful that the study results could help lead to future policies of suicide mitigation among gun owners and those with substance abuse issues.
“This study helps us better identify the populations at elevated risk of suicide, which can, in turn, inform clinical interventions, firearm policy and substance use prevention and treatment efforts,” Julia Schleimer, the lead author of the study, said in a press release. “For example, clinicians might counsel patients who have alcohol dependence and who own firearms about risk reduction strategies like safe firearm storage and temporary firearm transfer.”
Suicides represent the vast majority, roughly 60 percent, of all gun deaths in the U.S. every year. A recent analysis performed by The Trace found that while the U.S. has only the 30th highest firearm homicide rate among all countries, its firearm suicide rate is by far the highest in the world. Researchers sought to identify under-studied risk factors for the suicide rate.
“We know from prior studies that substance use is a risk factor for suicide,” Schleimer said. “But no one has looked at whether substance use is associated with increased suicide risk among firearm owners.”
She said it was important to identify such factors to develop suicide prevention strategies beyond focusing on firearms access.
“This is an important gap because, for policy and prevention efforts, we need evidence on contributing factors that are associated with increased risk above and beyond access to firearms alone,” Schleimer said.
To determine if there was an increased risk of suicide for handgun purchasers with histories of drug and alcohol-related crimes, the researchers collected data for all men who legally purchased a handgun in California in 2001 — 101,377 in total. The study excluded women because nearly all handgun purchasers that year were men, and no women with alcohol or drug-related criminal histories went on to die by suicide.
The researchers looked at data from the California Department of Justice to see how many of the men with legal handgun purchases had alcohol or drug-related criminal charges dating back from the time of purchase to January 1, 1990. They then used records from the California Department of Public Health to see how many of the sample had died by suicide before January 1, 2016.
The researchers said they could conclude that the data showed a significant correlation between alcohol-related charges and the risk of suicide with a high degree of confidence.
“Compared with those with neither alcohol nor drug charges, those with alcohol charges had 2.20 times the hazard of suicide,” and “2.22 times the hazard of firearm suicide,” the study said.
However, the researchers acknowledged that the study had certain limitations, including the failure to account for specific substances used and the incidence of substance-related criminal activity after purchasing a firearm. They suggested further research should be conducted to gain a better understanding.
“We did not directly measure severity of use or the types of substances involved; measures other than criminal charges (e.g., survey data or health records) are likely needed to adequately capture this variation,” the study said. “In addition, given our interest in informing policy and potential interventions at the time of purchase, we did not examine post-purchasing offending. Future research which considers post-purchase criminal charges may provide a more comprehensive picture of risk.”