Professor Michael Siegel of Boston University, co-author of a new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine on January 17, declared household gun ownership rates within the United States to be “the strongest single predictor of a state’s youth suicide rate”. Wikinews interviewed Siegel to learn more.
Siegel and colleagues including predoctoral fellow Anita Knopov, the lead author, compared data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2004, when the body last surveyed US gun owners, to corresponding information on suicides by 10–19 year olds from 2005 through 2015. The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System was used to find data on such variables as education, depression, and suicidal planning and ideation.
The study reports “For each 10 percentage-point increase in household gun ownership, the youth suicide rate increased by 26.9 percent”. The ten states with highest youth suicide rates had household gun ownership rates above 50%; the ten with the lowest youth suicide rates had household gun ownership around 20%. The data were, the study says, more closely correlated than youth suicide attempts were to actual suicides.
The study notes the National Violent Injury Statistic System indicates 82% of youth suicides involving a gun used one from the victim’s own household in 2016. Most variables appeared uncorrelated, with only suicide attempts and proportion of Native American youth showing correlation. The team wrote that guns “are 2.6 times more lethal than any other means of suicide; thus, access to firearms might be expected to contribute to a higher incidence of suicide.”
The highest rate noted by the team was in Alaska, with fifteen youth suicides per 100,000 individuals. New Jersey had the lowest rate, which was three per 100,000 people. There were states that did not match the overall trend: Alabama and Mississippi had low youth suicide rates of around 4.5 per 100,000 people but high household gun ownership rates of over 50%. Each state has a large proportion of African-American residents; they were found statistically less likely to commit suicide and to own guns.
Siegel agreed to answer some questions for Wikinews’s correspondent.
Wikinews Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Would you mind telling us a little about yourself, your background, and what led you to look into this subject?
Michael Siegel I am a professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health. My research has focused on the areas of tobacco, alcohol, and firearms. We decided to look at this subject because although there have been some studies that reported an association between household gun ownership and youth suicide rates, one could argue that the reason for this association is that gun households differ systematically from non-gun households in that they are more likely to have youth with depression and therefore youth who are more likely to attempt suicide. Our study was designed to control for these factors in order to determine whether differences in suicide attempt rates explain the observed association between household gun ownership and youth suicide rates.
WN Given that some key data is from 2004, how well do you think your results can be applied to the situation today?
MS Although we used gun ownership data from 2004 for the primary analysis, we repeated the analysis using a household gun ownership proxy averaged over the years 2005–2015, and the results were similar. Thus, we do not believe that there is any reason to think that the results do not apply to the situation today.
WN To what extent do the results of this study match up to your expectations?
MS We did not actually have a pre-conceived idea of whether or not we would find an association after controlling for the proportion of youth who were depressed, had made a suicide plan, or had attempted suicide. We were surprised, however, to find that the percentage of households with a gun was a stronger predictor of the youth suicide rate than the percentage of youth who made a suicide attempt.
WN What influence would you like to see these results having on policymakers?
MS The results suggest that decreasing the access of youth to firearms may lower youth suicide rates. Thus, our findings support efforts to encourage gun owners to store their guns in a manner that prevents youth from accessing them. Policy makers should consider enacting policies that reduce youth access to improperly stored firearms.
WN If you had access to more recent data than that from 2004, what would you hypothesize the difference might be, if any?
MS We don’t hypothesize that there would be any substantial difference because when we used the proxy data on gun ownership from 2005–2015, we did not find any major difference in the results.
WN Did you notice any significant trends in the data year-by-year, and, if so, what were they and what do you think might account for them?
MS In this article, we did not examine trends by year. The study was cross-sectional and combined (averaged) data from 2005 through 2015. Thus, we are not able in this study to examine trends in suicide rates over time.
WN You noted suicide attempts by youth were not as accurate a prediction method for youth suicide rates as the household gun ownership rates were. Why do you think that might be?
MS Our hypothesis is that the most important predictor of the youth suicide rate in a state is the extent to which youth in that state have access to the most lethal means (i.e., firearms). Having a high level of access to firearms, which is the most lethal means for suicide, apparently has a far greater impact on suicide rates and can negate the fact that a state has a low rate of youth suicide attempts (and vice versa).
WN Moving forward from this study, what are the next steps you have planned to research this further?
MS The next step of this research is to examine whether there are particular state firearm laws that impact rates of youth suicide at the state level.