A new study reveals that a startling percentage of American teens report having easy access to firearms, even when they have mental health problems that put them at a high risk of suicide.
Overall, 41 percent of teens living in a home with a firearm said they had easy access to the weapon. Alarmingly, this percentage was the same among teens with a history of mental illness or suicidal acts, the researchers found. They reported their findings in the current issue of JAMA Psychiatry.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for U.S. teens, accounting for a staggering one in five deaths — more than 4,600 annually — among 15- to 24-year olds. Risk factors for suicide include having a history of depression or other mental illness, alcohol or drug abuse, or previous suicide attempts, and having easy access to lethal methods.
Past research has shown that having a firearm in the home is one of the strongest risk factors for suicide. However, studies suggest that the suicide risk associated with firearms is lower in homes that practice safe storage of weapons.
Based on the startling number of teen suicides and suicide attempts each year, and their strong tie to firearm access, leading medical groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians, and the American Psychological Association advise healthcare providers to talk about safe firearm storage with parents – especially those with at-risk youths at home.
In this latest study, “[o]ur goal was to find out if those recommendations were being effectively implemented in the community,” said lead author Dr. Joseph Simonetti, from the University of Washington School of Medicine’s Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
Data for the study came from the The National Comorbidity Survey—Adolescent Supplement, which was conducted from 2001 to 2004, and included information on 10,123 U.S. adolescents between the ages of 13 to 18 years.
A third of the teens surveyed said they lived in a home with a firearm. Of those, about 41 percent reported having easy access to that firearm and the ability to shoot it. Further analysis revealed that older, male and non-Hispanic teens were more likely to report being able to access firearms. Those living in rural or wealthy households were also more likely to report access.
There was no difference, however, when the teens were grouped by suicide risk: teens with histories of mental illness or suicidal actions were just as likely as those without such histories to report firearm access, the researchers found
“There is an obvious disconnect between generally agreed upon recommendations for firearm safety practices and what we’re actually doing in the community,” Dr. Simonetti said. “We need better studies on how to promote safe firearms storage especially in households with children and children with mental illness,” he said.
Dr. Simonetti said some effective safe storage methods include using gun locks and gun cabinets and hiding the keys from children. Safer gun laws could also help to reduce suicide rates; throughout the country, states with stronger firearm safety laws have significantly lower rates of all-cause firearm deaths, including suicides, homicides, and accidental shootings. For example, states where a background check is required for all handgun sales have an average of 49 percent fewer firearm suicides than states with limited or no background check requirement.
Following the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre, President Barack Obama pushed for gun reforms, including expanded background checks and a ban on high-capacity magazines. Unfortunately, strong opposition from influential gun lobby groups like the National Rifle Association — and the politicians in their pocket — has halted any progress towards reducing gun suicides and other firearm deaths. In fact, the reason we didn’t have a surgeon general during the Ebola crisis is that Senate Republicans have blocked the nomination of Dr. Vivek Murthy for nearly a year now, all because he called gun violence a public health problem — a statement that is very much in line with scientific evidence and medical consensus statements.