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Gun ownership practices linked to soldier suicide risk

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Limiting access is a prevention strategy

These findings add to the growing body of evidence that firearm-related behaviors, beyond just gun ownership, may influence suicide risk, and support the most evidence-based and conceptually sound recommendation for suicide prevention, which is to remove the firearm from the home.

There are some limitations to this study. For example, the validity of the “psychological autopsy” approach used in the study has not been determined, and there is also a question mark over the accuracy of family members’ reports about gun ownership and storage practices. Despite this, the study provides support for recommendations for a change in firearm behaviors to reduce the risk of suicide.

Joseph A. Simonetti, MD, MPH, is affiliated with the Rocky Mountain Mental Illness, Research, Education and Clinical Center for Suicide Prevention at the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center, Aurora, Colo. Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, MD, MPH, PhD, is affiliated with the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center at the University of Washington, Seattle. Those comments are adapted from an accompanying editorial (JAMA Netw Open. 2019. Jun 7. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.5400). No conflicts of interest were declared.



U.S. soldiers who own firearms, store a loaded gun at home, or carry a gun publicly when not on duty are at significantly greater risk of suicide death, a case-control study of 135 U.S. Army soldiers who died by suicide shows.

“Our findings concurred with earlier studies by showing that factors beyond ownership of a firearm were associated with an increased risk of suicide,” wrote Catherine L. Dempsey, PhD, MPH, and her coauthors.

Since 2004, the rate of suicide deaths among Army soldiers has exceeded the rate of combat deaths each year, which prompted Dr. Dempsey, of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Md., and her coauthors to investigate whether increased access to firearms might be associated with an increased risk of suicide. The study was published by JAMA Network Open.

In the study, the researchers interviewed the next of kin or supervisors of 135 Army soldiers who had taken their own lives while on active duty between 2011 and 2013, 55% of whom used firearms to do so. They compared those findings with those 137 controls matched for suicide propensity based on sociodemographic and Army history risk factors, and 118 soldiers who had experienced suicidal ideation in the past year.

This analysis showed that soldiers who had stored a loaded gun with ammunition at home, or who had carried a personal gun in public had nearly fourfold higher odds of suicide (odds ratio, 3.9; P = .002), compared with propensity-matched controls.

Similarly, those who owned one or more handguns, stored a gun loaded with ammunition at home, and carried a personal gun in public had a greater than threefold odds of suicide.

The study found that soldiers who died by suicide were 90% more likely than matched controls to own at least one gun, four times more likely to store that gun loaded with ammunition at home, and three times more likely to carry a gun in public, compared with controls.

There was the suggestion that the use of safety locks at home was protective, but this did not reach statistical significance.

However, the study did not find significant differences in firearm accessibility characteristics between the soldiers who died by suicide, and the controls with suicidal ideation.

“Some current theories of suicide (eg., the interpersonal theory of suicide) suggest that fatal suicidal behavior results require not only the presence of suicidal desire but also a developed capability or capacity for suicidal behavior,” the authors wrote. “According to the interpersonal theory of suicide, this capability for lethal self-injury is acquired through repeated exposure to painful and fear-inducing experiences, thus habituating an individual to the pain and fear required to enact a fatal suicide attempt.”

Dr. Dempsey and her coauthors argued that their study supported a continued focus on “means restriction” counseling; limiting or removing access to lethal methods for suicide; and “motivational interviewing.”

They cited the fairly small sample size and relatively small response rates to surveys as limitations. However, they wrote, the response rates “were high for multi-informant interviews conducted within a military population.”

The study was supported by the U.S. Department of the Army, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, National Institutes of Health, and National Institute of Mental Health. One author declared grants from the Military Suicide Research Consortium outside the submitted work, and one author declared support, consultancies, and advisory board positions with the pharmaceutical industry, and co-ownership of a mental health market research firm. No other conflicts of interest were declared.

SOURCE: Dempsey CL et al. JAMA Netw Open. 2019 Jun 7. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.5383.

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