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Owning guns raises risks of violent deaths

Harold Mandel's picture
A loaded gun

There has been an epidemic of violence in the United States and worldwide in recent years. Mass shootings in schools and public places such as shopping malls have become commonplace. Although the debate rages on in the United States about upholding constitutional guarantees to the right to bear arms, nevertheless from a public health perspective the finding that simply having guns is dangerous should prompt anyone to give careful consideration to whether or not they really want to own a weapon. Data on deaths associated with firearm ownwership also raises considerations of restricting access to firearms.

Research has suggested that access to firearms in the home increases the risk for violent death, reported the Annals of Internal Medicine on Jan. 21, 2014. Researchers decided to seek a better understanding of the current estimates of the association between firearm availability and suicide or homicide. They came to the conclusion that access to firearms is associated with increased risk for completed suicide and being the victim of homicide.

There are an estimated 31,000 deaths a year in the United States from firearms. In 2009 it was indicated that 51.8 percent of deaths from suicide were firearm associated. It was found among homicide victims, 66.5 percent of deaths were firearm associated. Suicides and homicides frequently occurred in the home.

There is a higher prevalence of firearm ownership in the United States than in any other country. About 35 percent to 39 percent of Americans report owning firearms. The annual rate of suicide by firearms, at 6.3 suicides per 100,000 residents, is at a higher level in the United States than in any other country which reports this data. Furthermore, the annual rate of firearm associated homicide in the United States, at 7.1 homicides per 100,000 residents, is the highest among high-income countries.

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Meanwhile, ecological studies have suggested that state restrictions on firearm ownership are associated with a lowering in firearm associated suicides and homicides. The apparent increase in the risk for suicide associated with firearms in the home has not been found to be unique for persons alleged to have suffered from mental illness. These suicides may therefore be more of an indicator of the ease of impulsive suicide among firearm owners. Also, because most homicide victims know their perpetrators, this may be an indication of an impulsive reaction to domestic disputes which occurs with firearm ownership.

According to a comprehensive review of the scientific literature done by researchers at UC San Francisco (UCSF), someone with access to firearms is three times as likely to commit suicide and just about twice as likely to be the victim of a homicide as someone who does not have access to firearms, reports UCSF on Jan. 21, 2014. The meta-analysis for this study pools results from 15 investigations. Slightly more than half of these investigations were done after a 1996 federal law prohibited the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from funding research which could be seen as promoting gun control.

There were significant gender differences noted in this study. Men were about four times more likely to commit suicide than when firearms were not accessible. And women were found to be almost three times more likely to be victims of homicide. Andrew Anglemyer, PhD, MPH, said, “Our analysis shows that having access to firearms is a significant risk factor for men committing suicide and for women being victims of homicide.” Because the data suggest that most victims of homicide know their assailants, the higher risk for women is a strong indicator of domestic violence.

The increased risk for violence associated with gun ownership is apparent all around us. It has been my observation that it is a complete myth to blame this problem on the mentally ill with hopes that restricting firearm ownership among those people alleged to be mentally ill will solve this crisis. In fact it appears there are far more homicides with firearms among people with no records of alleged mental illness. And suicide risk from firearms appears to be similar among both groups.

The constitutional issue of the right to bear arms in the United States runs into conflict with concerns dealing with public health issues of violence associated with firearm ownership. I personally believe public health concerns should be stressed in a consideration of the ease of firearm ownership. We should search for interpretations of the constitution which guarantee the safety of citizens from harm in efforts to restrict firearm ownership in the best interest of saving lives.