Guns cause more than half of all suicides in the United States each year, and new research finds most of these are handguns owned by the deceased that were stored unlocked and loaded.
Researchers used data from the National Violent Death Reporting System to examine the deaths of more than 117,000 people who killed themselves with guns between 2003 and 2018.
"These results highlight that more often than not, unsecured handguns are the driving force in firearm suicide in America," said senior author Michael Anestis, executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers University.
"That said, some groups -- like men and individuals who identify as American Indian/Alaskan native -- are more likely than their peers to use long guns in their suicide death," Anestis said in a Rutgers news release. "As we encourage secure firearm storage and storing firearms away from home during times of stress, it is important to discuss more than just handguns."
About 65% of the victims used a handgun, the research found. About 77% owned the gun they used. That gun was stored loaded in more than 63% of cases and unlocked about 59% of the time.
The research team also studied where on their bodies individuals wounded themselves. In about 81% of cases that was the head. Most other wounds were to the chest.
Suicide victims with wounds to the chest or abdomen tended to be younger. The study also found that women were more likely than men to die from gunshot wounds to areas of the body other than the head.
Men were twice as likely as women to use a rifle in their death. They were also more likely to store their firearms unlocked.
Also, younger individuals were more likely to have used firearms that had been stored unlocked. This may indicate they were using unsecured guns owned by their parents, researchers said.
"These findings highlight the powerful role that secure firearm storage could play in firearm suicide prevention, including our efforts to prevent suicide among children and adolescents who might otherwise access their parents' unsecured firearms," Anestis said.
While there were few variations by race, those who were American Indian/Alaskan Native were far more likely than those who identified as white to use a rifle or shotgun. This may be explained by other differences in these groups, such as using guns for hunting.
When guns are in the home, the risk of death is elevated for everyone who lives there, past research has shown.
"If we can shift social norms on securing firearms and if we can provide easy paths toward legally storing firearms away from home during times of stress, we have an opportunity to prevent thousands of tragedies every year," Anestis said.
"Doing this requires not only that we understand the disproportionate role of unsecure firearms, but that we acknowledge the risk that comes from rifles and shotguns, particularly in communities in which hunting is common," he noted.
The study was published Nov. 16 in the journal Death Studies.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on suicide prevention and the new 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
SOURCE: Rutgers University, news release, Nov. 16, 2022