Commentary

Surge in firearm sales tied to COVID-19 fears, uncertainty presents risks

Use gentle assumptions and focus on home access to elicit positive answers.


 

In the wake of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, in Newtown, Conn., after 20 children and seven adults were murdered, American gun sales surged on fears of new restrictions.

Guns and bullets Bytmonas/ThinkStock

In the ensuing months, 20 more children and 40 more adults died from unintentional shootings believed to be tied to that surge in gun purchases.1 More recently, American gun sales surged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic with heated legal battles brewing over whether gun sales are essential.2,3 The results of this surge in sales are yet to fully manifest, but I would like to discuss several risks.

Dr. Jack Rozel, University of Pittsburgh

Dr. Jack Rozel

The public health risks of firearm access are well established: Nearly every measure of harm, from suicide to negligent injury and death to homicide to shootings of police, increase along with access to firearms.4 That firearms in the home are associated with greater likelihoods of suicide, negligent injury and death, and intrafamilial homicide has been recognized for decades as has the substantially heightened risk in the immediate period after a firearm is brought into the home.5,6 Defensive gun use is rare despite this being the nominal reason for firearm ownership among many.7 Even prior to recent events, there had been concerns of increased unsafe carrying and handling of firearms.8 It seems reasonable to expect such trends not to be diminished by recent events.

Added to this are several stressors, which one can reasonably expect to be associated with increased risks for unsafe use. There are new, broad social stressors from fear and uncertainty about COVID-19. Unemployment rates have skyrocketed, clinical care has been disrupted, and basic necessities have become scant. Children are home from school, unable to play with friends and unable to access mental health services as easily as before; risks of negligent and suicidal injuries and death may ensue. Couples and families are isolated in homes together for longer periods and with fewer avenues for relief; previously peaceful homes may see conflicts increase and homes with abuse have now trapped victims with their assailants. Social isolation is difficult for any person and may be even more traumatic for people with underlying vulnerabilities, including mental illness. The risks of being isolated in a home – struggling with worsening symptoms – with ready access to a firearm are self-evident.

For mental health professionals in our current situation, I would like to offer several practical ways we can intervene with patients and clients who might own firearms.

  • Consider reassessing for firearm access. Patients may be in new homes, or there may be new firearms in their homes. Use gentle assumptions and focus on home access over personal access to elicit the most true, positive answers, for example: “I understand there have been a lot of changes recently; how many guns are in the home now?”
  • Reinforce safer storage practices. Simple measures, such as storing ammunition separately and using trigger locks or safes, can make a substantial difference in injury risks.
  • Do not forget aging clients; suicide risk increases with age, and there may be substantial risks among the geriatric population for suicide and murder-suicide. If using telepsychiatry, realize that the abuser might be in the home or within earshot of any clinical encounter, and this might put the client at heightened risk, during and after telesessions.
  • Highlight access to local and national resources, including the Disaster Distress Hotline (800-985-5990) and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK). Promote both numbers, and note that some people may be more comfortable reaching out for help for “distress” than for “suicide.”

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