Loopholes in federal and state law make it easy for people who are a danger to themselves to get guns. But Everytown’s research shows that common-sense public safety laws can help reduce gun suicides and save lives. Simply put, background check laws make people safer: controlling for population, there are 48 percent fewer gun suicides in states that require background checks for private handgun sales than in states that do not.
Everytown compared the number of people who committed suicide with guns and without guns over a five-year period (2008-12) in states that did or did not require background checks for unlicensed, “private” handgun sales. Data were obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Fatal Injury Reports on December 2, 2014.“Fatal Injury Reports,” Injury Prevention & Control: Data & Statistics (WISQARS), last accessed January 7, 2015, available at http://1.usa.gov/1plXBux.
Throughout the study period, 14 states and the District of Columbia required all gun buyers to undergo a background check before buying a handgun in an unlicensed sale, and 36 states did not.We analyzed data for states that required background checks for all handgun sales during the period 2008-12. Since then, Colorado, Delaware, and Washington adopted these laws as well. During that period, the CDC recorded 27,749 gun suicides in the former group of states, and 69,257 in the latter. Adjusting for population, there were 48 percent fewer gun suicides in states that require background checks for all handgun sales than in states that do not. There was no similar difference in non-firearm suicide rates.
These results are consistent with research that employed other methods. An early evaluation of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act found that the implementation of the background check system was associated with a six percent reduction in suicide rates among people ages 55 and older, though the authors speculated this might also be related to changes in both waiting period and background check requirements.Ludwig J and P Cook. “Homicide and suicide rates associated with implementation of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act.” JAMA, 2000 Aug 2;284 (5):585-91. Another study found that state-level firearm purchase permit requirements and bans on firearm sales to minors were associated with lower rates of male suicide.Katherine Hempstead and Antonio Rodriguez, “Gun Control and Suicide: The Impact of State Firearm Regulations, 1995-2004,” Health Policy 101, no. 1 (June 2011): last accessed January 6, 2015, available at http://bit.ly/1AARcUg.
Still, while over 18,000 Americans commit suicide with guns every year, little is understood about the characteristics of the firearms they use or the methods by which they acquire them. Limited data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and the State of California suggest that young people who commit suicide with guns typically do so inside their homes with guns that belong to their friends, parents, or relatives.Renee M. Johnson et al., “Who are the Owners of Firearms Used in Adolescent Suicides?” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 40, no. 6 (December 2010); and Mona A. Wright et al., “Gun Suicide by Young People in California: Descriptive Epidemiology and Gun Ownership,” Journal of Adolescent Health 43 (2008). But the mechanism by which background checks affect overall suicide rates is not entirely clear. It is plausible that background checks stop dangerously mentally ill people from obtaining firearms and committing acts of self-harm. People with severe mental illness are at a substantially increased risk of suicide, J. T. Cavanagh et al., “Psychological Autopsy Studies of Suicide: A Systematic Review,” Psychological Medicine 33, no. 5 (July 2003): 947. and partially as a result, they are federally prohibited from buying guns.18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4). According to the ATF, “any person who has been ‘adjudicated as a mental defective’ or ‘committed to a mental institution’ is prohibited under Federal law from shipping, transporting, receiving, or possessing any firearm or ammunition,” under federal law. See http://1.usa.gov/1Bv86DR. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has proven effective at stopping such gun sales. Since its inception, more than 50,000 gun sales to dangerously mentally ill people have been denied,As of November 30, 2014, the FBI had denied 16,261 background checks due to mental illness (http://1.usa.gov/1HpenTi), and of the 1,131,466 denials by state and local agencies between 2009-12, between 3.4 and 5.4 percent of were for mental health criteria (http://1.usa.gov/179yzf3). In total, over 50,000 gun sales to severely mentally ill people have been blocked by the background check system. particularly as states shore up their databases identifying prohibited, dangerously mentally ill people. Everytown for Gun Safety, Closing the Gaps: Strengthening the Background Check System to Keep Guns Away from the Dangerously Mentally Ill (May 2014) available at http://bit.ly/1pFahAj. It is also possible that background check requirements are associated with lower suicide rates due to an unobserved variable, such as the availability of firearms. A study of handgun purchasers in California found that merely acquiring a firearm was associated with a substantially elevated risk of suicide in the weeks following, lasting up to six years.Wintemute GJ, Parham CA, Beaumont JJ, Wright MA, Drake C. “Mortality among Recent Purchasers of Handguns.” The New England Journal of Medicine 1999 341(21):1583-1589. And although estimates of household firearm prevalence are out-of-date and subject to reporting biases, there is evidence that Americans are more likely to commit suicide if they live in an area with a higher prevalence of household gun ownership.Miller M, Lippman SJ, Azrael D, and D Hemenway. “Household Firearm Ownership and Rates of Suicide Across the 50 United States.” The Journal of Trauma Injury, Infection, and Critical Care 62(4). April 2007: 1029-35; and Miller M, Azrael D, Hepburn L, Hemenway D, and SJ Lippman. “The association between changes in household firearm ownership and rates of suicides in the United States 1981-2002.” Injury Prevention (12). 2006: 178-82.