In response to the novel coronavirus, families across America are remaining at home and practicing social distancing. While these steps are vital to protecting our collective health, they have drastically and rapidly changed life in America. These changes and related uncertainties have led to new anxieties for many Americans. Unemployment claims have skyrocketed, with more than three million workers filing for unemployment in a single week. Fears about the virus and how it may impact social order have prompted many Americans to acquire new firearms.
Each of these factors described above, collectively and individually, can increase risk for suicide—both now and long after new cases of the virus are diagnosed. When guns—the most lethal means of suicide—are combined with these risks, tragedies can occur far too easily. In the coming weeks and months, we must take actionable steps to help protect vulnerable individuals from firearm suicides.
The intersection of guns and suicide
In the last decade, more than 400,000 Americans died by suicide. Over half of these deaths involved a firearm. Although guns are not the most common method of suicide attempts in the United States, they are the most lethal.
Most people who attempt suicide do not die—unless they use a gun. Individuals who attempt suicide with other means often have time to reconsider their actions or summon help. With a firearm, however, once the trigger is pulled, there’s no turning back. In fact, guns are used in only five percent of suicide attempts, but are responsible for ß. While drug overdoses are fatal in fewer than three percent of cases, approximately 85 percent of suicide attempts with a gun end in death.
Given the unique lethality of guns, research shows that temporarily removing firearms from people in crisis can reduce the risk of suicide. Suicide attempts are often impulsive acts utilizing whatever methods are immediately available—48% of people harm themselves within 10 minutes of deciding to attempt suicide. When people don’t have easy access to firearms and attempt with other means, they are much more likely to survive their attempt and have the opportunity to seek help. Importantly, the vast majority of people—90 percent—who survive a suicide attempt do not go on to die by suicide.
Stress and anxiety can increase suicide risk
Shelter-in-place and social distancing policies have limited many Americans’ in-person contact with friends, family, and other support networks, led millions of people to lose their jobs, and dramatically shifted thoughts about well-being and safety. For some, particularly the one in five Americans with underlying mental health conditions, this period of isolation and uncertainty may increase suicide risk.
Research suggests that previous epidemics have increased suicide rates in the most affected communities. For example, China experienced an increase in suicide deaths after the 2003 SARS outbreak, particularly among older residents who were more concerned about contracting the virus and most socially isolated. Given that the gun ownership rate in the United States is roughly 33 times higher than in China, it is possible that suicide increases related to coronavirus may be particularly steep in America.
Crisis intervention centers and mental health organizations are already voicing concerns about the impact that coronavirus-related anxieties may have on suicide in America. Call centers across America are reporting increased calls to suicide and mental health crisis hotlines—in some cases as high as 300 percent. The Crisis Text Line handled 6,000 text conversations during one week in March, about twice the normal volume. Local police departments are also reporting increases in calls for service involving suicide attempts.
Unfortunately, for some Americans, shelter-in-place policies and concerns about the virus may also create difficulties in accessing mental health services, particularly when these services are accessed through a primary care physician. Some states, like New York and Tennessee, have set up systems to provide mental health services by phone during this pandemic. But for too many Americans, accessing regular mental health services may be difficult during this critical time.
Financial insecurity and suicide risk
According to experts, the coronavirus pandemic has triggered a "major economic crisis that will burden our societies for years to come." Globally, production of goods has decreased, impacting supply chains across the world, while consumer demand and economic confidence have collapsed.
In the United States, the economic impact of the pandemic is already being felt by millions of Americans as many businesses are closing or experiencing significant slowdowns in revenue, forcing many companies to lay off staff. The number of unemployment claims to the Department of Labor surged to 3.28 million last week, an increase of 1,064 percent from the week prior. The number of claims shattered the Great Recession peak of 665,000 claims in March 2009 and the all-time high of 695,000 claims in October 1982.
As Americans cope with record unemployment, suicide risk may also increase. Researchers have suggested that roughly 4,750 suicides in the United States between 2007 and 2010 were directly associated with the economic recession. Job loss and a history of depression were particular risk factors for these suicides. Additionally, researchers found that a one percentage point rise in unemployment during the Great Recession was associated with a 0.99 percent increase in the US suicide rate.
Panic gun buying may lead to more suicides
Some Americans are responding to the pandemic and social distancing measures by stocking up on guns and ammunition—mistakenly believing that doing so will protect them during these times of uncertainty. The New York Times reported that background checks spiked in February 2020 over the same month last year, and data from Florida, New Jersey, Colorado, and other states shows even more substantial increases in firearm sales. Online retailer ammo.com reported a 222% increase in transactions and a 309% increase in revenue in February.
Many of these gun purchases appear to have been made by first-time gun owners, meaning that these purchases may elevate overall rates of gun ownership in America. Research has confirmed, time and time again, that higher levels of household gun ownership correspond with higher suicide rates. This correlation holds true for the population as a whole, as well as every age group and both men and women. At the individual level, research shows that having a gun in the home triples the risk of suicide death for all household members.
While Americans are understandably worried about keeping safe in this crisis, the data is clear: panic-buying guns is not a panacea. Combined with the other factors described above, the influx of firearms in American houses could pose serious risks to gun buyers and their families.
Steps to reduce suicide risk
Now more than ever, it is critical that we take the steps necessary to keep families safe from gun suicides. Families, law enforcement, and the courts can and must take proactive, concerted steps now to prevent suicides from increasing during this crisis.
• Families should practice safe storage to reduce the risks of firearm suicide, particularly among children and teens. Unattended firearms should be kept unloaded and locked, with ammunition stored separately. Studies suggest that safe firearm storage can significantly reduce rates of youth suicides.
• Families and at-risk individuals should take steps, as allowed under state law, to remove firearms from the home if individuals exhibit warning signs of suicide. Many law enforcement agencies are willing and able to store firearms for people who want to voluntarily and temporarily store firearms outside the home to prevent suicide.
• Courts and law enforcement should continue to facilitate and ensure compliance with extreme risk protection orders to remove firearms from people who are at the most significant and imminent risk of suicide. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia currently have some version of an extreme risk law in place. Studies have shown that these laws are effective at saving lives from suicide. To prevent the spread of the virus, some courts are limiting their hours or closing to the public; during this time, it is critical that they also consider using e-filing, drop boxes outside court houses where people can request or respond to orders, and telephonic and video resources to provide access to those at risk and in need of court intervention.
Unfortunately, research suggests that the impact of this pandemic on gun suicides in America may be felt for months, if not years, to come. While lawmakers’ focus is currently on the coronavirus and looming economic crisis, in the coming months it will be critically important to strengthen and effectively implement state and federal gun laws to help prevent firearm suicides. Background check laws, extreme risk laws, and safe storage laws can all play an important role in addressing the toll of gun suicide in America.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. These services operate 24/7 and provide free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.