Alcohol Abuse Linked to Greater Risk of Suicide by Gun Owners

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Illustration by Imagens Evangelicas via Flickr

A recent history of alcohol abuse more than doubles the risk that a handgun owner will take his own life, according to a new study.

The study by the University of California Davis Violence Prevention Research Program (VPRP) concluded that a record of alcohol offenses within two years of a firearms purchase is “associated with 2.20 times the hazard of suicide.”

Suicides represent a significant proportion of firearm deaths, many studies have shown.

The suicide rate among all gun owners in the California study of 42 per 100,00 (regardless of whether they had a history of substance abuse) was more than twice the rate of suicides among U.S. males.

But the VPRP study broke new ground, researchers said.

“We know access to firearms is a strong risk factor for suicide, and we know from prior studies that substance use is a risk factor for suicide,” said Julia Schleimer, the lead author of the study and a research data analyst at VPRP.

“But no one has looked at whether substance use is associated with increased suicide risk among firearm owners.”

Researchers based their findings on data compiled for all the men who legally purchased a handgun in California during 2001 — 101,377— showing that 594 took their own lives, 90 percent of them with a firearm, over a 15-year period ending in 2015.

The study carved out several subsets of handgun purchasers with either alcohol or drug-related charges—or both.

Although the number was relatively small—some 24 of the 1,907 individuals with just alcohol offenses took their lives―researchers argued that it was sufficient to show that “prior alcohol charges without drug charges (versus neither)” represented a significant risk that a handgun owner would take his own life.

Males were the focus of the study because they represented the bulk of California gun purchasers in 2001.

The researchers used data from the California Department of Justice to see how many of the men with legal handgun purchases had alcohol- or drug-related criminal charges dating back to January 1, 1990, such as an arrest for driving under the influence (DUI) or drug charges.

Records from the California Department of Public Health were used to see how many in that smaller cohort of purchasers with alcohol offenses had died by suicide during the period under study.

The researchers acknowledged the data did not show whether individuals used the handgun they purchased to take their lives; nor did it account for whether involvement in the criminal justice system itself could have been a factor in the suicide.

Nevertheless, they argued, “given the lethality of firearm suicide attempts, restricting access to firearms among those at risk of self-harm may save lives.”

The study findings, published in Preventive Medicine, suggested that preventing  individuals with a history of alcohol-related offenses, based on police records, from purchasing firearms might be considered by policymakers. But other types of intervention could also be productive, researchers said.

“For example, clinicians might counsel patients who have alcohol dependence and who own firearms about risk reduction strategies like safe firearm storage and temporary firearm transfer,” the study asserted.

The same high risk was not associated with other types of substance abuse, such as addiction to narcotics.

“One of the key findings of the study is that more recent and repeat alcohol charges were associated with the greatest risk of suicide, including firearm suicide,” said Schleimer.

The individuals in the sample were mostly white (73.2 percent) with a median age of 40, and nearly 67 percent were first-time purchasers.  Compared with purchasers who did not die by suicide, a higher proportion of those who died by suicide were white (83.7 percent), according to the study.

Several studies link alcohol and drug use with a higher risk of suicide.

“The risk (of suicide) was greatest among those with two or more alcohol arrests or convictions, among those whose last alcohol charge was in the year prior to their purchase in 2001, and in the two years following the index handgun purchase,” the study said.

Co-authors in the study included Susan L. Stewart from the UC Davis Department of Public Health Sciences; and Mona A Write, Aaron B. Shev, Christopher D. McCort, Rameesha Asif-Sattar, Sydney Sohl, and Garen Wintemute from the Violence Prevention Research Program.

The complete study and tables can be downloaded here.

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