Sixty-three percent of firearm-owning households in Washington state do not store their firearms locked and unloaded, according to research led by the University of Washington School of Public Health.
In findings published May 17 in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers characterized the differences in suicide-risk behaviors among nearly 35,000 Washington firearm-owning and non-firearm-owning households. Such behaviors included safe-storage practices in firearm-owning households, alcohol use and mental health indicators.
Numerous public health, medical and firearm organizations across the nation define safe firearm storage as locked, unloaded and out of reach of others. These barriers to firearm access can affect the risk for someone contemplating suicide.
“Access to lethal means is part of what’s fueling suicides,” said lead author Ms. Erin Morgan, a doctoral student in the Department of Epidemiology. “Public health workers, emergency responders and policy makers should push to tailor suicide interventions and trainings for safe storage practices with suicide risk and firearm access in mind. Temporarily restricting access to a firearm for someone at risk is an opportunity to save a life.”
Ms. Morgan and her colleagues analyzed data from the Washington state 2013, 2015 and 2016 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a national telephone survey run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It collects data such as health-related risk behaviors.
They found that about 34 percent of survey respondents said they lived with a firearm in their home. These respondents were more likely to be older, white, male, retired and married. Of this population, only 37 percent said they lived in households in which firearms were stored locked and unloaded. These respondents tended to be younger, female, college graduates and reported having children under 18 living in the household.
The study also found no significant differences in mental health indicators between residents of gun-owning households and those in households without guns. However, among firearm-owning households in which safe gun storage was not practiced, alcohol misuse was more common.
The study recommends all states collect data inquiring about firearm ownership and storage practices via the CDC system. The practice was once standard nationally, but has not been performed in many states in 14 years. Clinicians can also play a role in suicide risk intervention by discussing firearms and safety practices with their patients. Finally, community-based and national campaigns can educate firearm owners about safe storage practices.
Co-authors of the study include Mr. Tony Gomez, Violence and Injury Prevention Manager at Public Health – Seattle & King County and clinical instructor of health services at the UW School of Public Health, as well as Dr. Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, associate professor of epidemiology at the UW School of Public Health.
[Photo: Ms. Erin Morgan]