Crunching The Numbers On Guns And Suicide

Data on 238,292 people who bought handguns in California in 1991 show their risk of suicide soared after they bought their guns. In the first week after purchase, the risk that gun buyers would shoot themselves was 57 times as high as the general rate of gun suicide--that is, 644 per 100,000 people per year among the handgun buyers, compared with 11.3 per 100,000 for all others. Among the handgun buyers, suicide was the leading cause of death, outranking heart disease.

The lead author of the study, Dr. Garen J. Wintemute, an emergency-room doctor and head of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California at Davis, says studies have shown that having a gun in the house increases the risk of suicide and homicide. But the surprise in his study, published on Nov. 18 in the New England Journal of Medicine, was how high the suicide risk was, especially just after purchase. Even six years later, the risk of suicide among the 1991 handgun buyers was still double that of the rest of the population.

Some of the gun buyers, Wintemute admits, might have tried to kill themselves by other means if they hadn't been able to buy a gun. But fewer of them would have succeeded. That's because suicide by gunshot is more coldly effective than anything else: Among would-be suicides who use a gun, 90% are successful, compared with 10% of those who use pills or poison.

A longer waiting period to buy guns could prevent some of these suicides, he says. The 15-day period in effect in California in 1991 was not long enough. Since then, it has been reduced to 10 days.

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