Every day, an average of three youths between 10 and 19 years old die by firearm-related suicide. Although the link between gun ownership and overall suicide rates is well established, less is known about the relationship between household gun ownership and suicide rates among youth.
Now, a new study led by School of Public Health researchers finds that states with higher levels of household gun ownership also have higher overall youth suicide rates, with every 10 percentage-point increase in household gun ownership associated with a 26.9 percent increase in the youth suicide rate.
Published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the study is the first to examine the relationship between household gun ownership and youth suicide rates while controlling for differences in the rate of youth suicide attempts across states.
“The availability of firearms is contributing to an increase in the actual number of suicides, not just leading youth to substitute other means of suicide for guns,” says pre-doctoral fellow Anita Knopov, the study’s lead author.
The researchers used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on suicides by youth between the ages of 10 and 19 years old from 2005 to 2015. They also used state-level data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) to control for rates of risk behaviors, including severe negative affect, depression, suicidal planning, suicide attempts, and substance use associated with suicide, as well as other factors associated with suicide, such as race, family constellation, poverty, education, and urbanicity.
To calculate gun ownership rates in each state, the researchers used data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) surveys of adults from 2004, the last year that the survey included gun ownership.
The researchers found that the overall youth suicide rate from 2005 to 2015 ranged from a high of 15 youth suicides per 100,000 people in Alaska to a low of 3 per 100,000 people in New Jersey. The estimated household gun ownership in 2004 ranged from a high of 66 percent in Wyoming to a low of 10 in Hawaii. In the 10 states with the highest youth suicide rates, the average household gun ownership was 52.5 percent, compared to a household gun ownership rate of 20 percent in the 10 states with the lowest youth suicide rates.
When the researchers controlled for other factors associated with youth suicide, they found that higher levels of household gun ownership were not only associated with higher rates of firearm-related youth suicide, but also overall youth suicide, with each 10 percentage-point increase in the prevalence of household gun ownership corresponding to a 26.9 percent increase in the rate of all youth suicides.
“This study demonstrates that the strongest single predictor of a state’s youth suicide rate is the prevalence of household gun ownership in that state,” says study co-author Michael Siegel, professor of community health sciences. “The level of gun ownership is a much better predictor of youth suicide than even knowing the exact number of youth who will attempt suicide in a given year.”
The study was co-authored by Julia Raifman, assistant professor of health law, policy & management, and Elysia Larson of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The study was funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Evidence for Action program.