(Reuters Health) - Most Americans don’t believe having a gun at home increases the risk of suicide, whether they are gun owners or not, according to a new study.
Research has shown that having access to a gun increases the likelihood that a person who attempts suicide will succeed. Still, among 4,000 people surveyed recently, nearly 85 percent disagreed that the presence of a firearm in a home increased the risk of suicide.
Andrew Conner of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and colleagues looked at data from a 2015 survey about firearm ownership, in which people were asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “Having a gun in the home increases the risk of suicide.”
“What surprised us was just how few people understood that suicide risk increased because of ready access to firearms,” Conner told Reuters Health by email.
Of the 4,000 people who responded, 15 percent agreed that the presence of a firearm increases the risk for suicide. That included 6 percent of gun owners, 9 percent of those who live with someone who has a gun and 20 percent of those who live in a home without firearms.
One in three survey takers who were health care professionals agreed that having a household firearm increases suicide risk, including 12 percent who owned guns.
Overall, fewer than 10 percent of gun owners with children and gun owners who had received firearm training agreed that household firearms increase suicide risk.
In 2015, more than 44,000 people in the U.S. died by suicide, and half used firearms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of these came from the person’s home.
“Medical societies recognize that removing guns from a suicidal person’s home can do more to immediately reduce the risk of death than any other known treatment, (but) most physicians do not counsel their patients to remove or even store guns in ways that make them inaccessible to at-risk people,” Conner said.
Health care professionals must learn to communicate the risk and talk about it with their patients, the study authors wrote in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
“The firearms discussion is often around mass shootings and homicide, but the truth of the matter is that suicides make up the large majority of all firearm deaths in the U.S.,” said Dr. Andrew Anglemyer of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Anglemyer, who wasn’t involved with this study, has researched suicide and firearms access.
In 2011, Florida passed a law forbidding doctors to ask their patients about guns in the home, but portions of the law were struck down by a federal appeals court earlier this year.
“Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. and the second leading cause of death among children and young adults,” Conner noted in his email.
In some states, family members can ask courts to temporarily remove firearms from homes of those who pose a risk to themselves. Law enforcement agencies and gun retailers may also be willing to temporarily store firearms to help prevent suicide, a recent study suggested.
A limitation of the current study is that it relies on one question in the survey, which may have been misinterpreted to mean suicidal ideation rather than death by suicide, the study authors wrote.
“We’re missing the boat here on reaching the vast majority of Americans with an important message,” said Dr. J. John Mann of Columbia University in New York. Mann, who wasn’t involved with this study, researches firearm availability and suicide rates.
“We need to do the same public campaign we did for smoking and tell people through TV, advertisements and email about this,” he told Reuters Health by phone. “Doctors should talk to their patients during annual exams and discuss gun safety if they have them in the home.”
Health professionals should move the conversation beyond only “at-risk” patients, said Dr. Augustine Kposowa of the University of California, Riverside, who researches the links between firearms, suicide and unemployment.
“In this country, people’s identities have become mixed up with their jobs, and in desperate moments of joblessness, it’s easier to pick up that gun,” Kposowa, who wasn’t involved with this study, told Reuters Health by phone. “Guns are detrimental. Guns carry a sense of fatality and finality.”
SOURCE: bit.ly/2zD0e6o Annals of Internal Medicine, online October 23, 2017.