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Suicide Leading Cause Of Death For Gun Buyers

(SACRAMENTO, California) - In a study of 238,292 individuals who legally purchased handguns in California in 1991, researchers at UC Davis School of Medicine and Medical Center report that suicide is the leading cause of death among recent purchasers of handguns.

In the first week following handgun purchase, the firearm suicide rate for handgun purchasers was 57 times higher than the adjusted rate for the state' s population as a whole. Within the first year after the purchase, suicide accounted for 24.5 percent of all deaths and 51.9 percent of deaths among women ages 21-44. And for the next five years, the risk of committing suicide with a gun remained at least twice as high for the handgun purchasers as for the general population. These findings are reported in the November 18 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

"Our study found that gun buyers are at particularly high risk for committing suicide within a week after they acquire their guns," says emergency medicine physician Garen Wintemute, professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine at UC Davis School of Medicine and Medical Center and lead author of the study. "They remain at increased risk for years afterwards."

The six-year study, conducted by investigators at the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research program, included 238,292 purchasers of handguns through licensed firearm dealers in California in 1991. The cause of death of people who purchased handguns was compared to that of the adult population of California as a whole through 1996. Suicide was the leading cause of death among people who bought handguns in the first year following gun purchase.

Firearm suicide alone ranked second among all causes of death, behind heart disease and ahead of cancer; however, for the entire state during 1991-92, suicide ranked ninth among all causes of death. There were on average 1,829 firearm suicides annually in California during 1991-92 - 10.3 percent were committed by people who purchased handguns in 1991. Moreover, the percentage of all suicides that were committed with firearms, and the percentage of all deaths that were suicides (whether by firearms or by all methods) were substantially higher for recent handgun purchasers than for the state as a whole.

"The public's attention predominantly has been focused on gun homicides, but in reality, there have been substantially more gun suicides in most years than there have been gun homicides. People tend to hide gun suicide because it can be a shameful act for the survivors." The National Vital Statistics Report documented 17,566 suicides by firearm compared with 13,522 homicides in 1997, the last year for which statistics are available.

The UC Davis study also highlights a little known fact that women who buy guns are particularly at risk for death from gun violence.

"It was surprising that our study found a huge difference between men and women, and the impact on risk from suicide or homicide from recent purchase of a gun," says Wintemute.

"We found, in some cases, nearly 40 times as many suicides among women who bought handguns as we expected. Their risk for dying from gun homicide was doubled as well."

Firearm suicide accounted for 31.2 percent of all first-year deaths among women who purchased handguns, and 0.3 percent of all deaths among women in California during 1991-92. Among younger women, ages 21-44, who made up 75.4 percent of all women who purchased handguns - more than half (51.9 percent) of all first-year deaths were suicides, and 37.0 percent were firearm suicides. Of all handgun purchasers who committed suicide by firearm during the six-year study, 25.0 percent of the women and 13.7 percent of the men did so within a month of buying their handguns.

The findings for women suggest that many may purchase handguns for protection against intimate violence and that these handguns are used against them or are at any rate not protective. Women in abusive relationships are also at an increased risk for homicide.

The study was supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation and is the latest in a series of reports from the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program on guns and violence and their impact on public health.


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