People buying guns during COVID pandemic more likely to feel suicidal

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — The coronavirus pandemic has caused many people to change their shopping habits. For some, their purchases could take a deadly turn. Researchers at Rutgers University find people who have bought a gun during the pandemic are more likely to be suicidal than other firearm owners.

According to their study, about 70 percent of Americans who purchased a firearm amid the pandemic report experiencing suicidal thoughts over the course of their lives. In comparison, only 37 percent of other, earlier gun owners say the same.

“People who were motivated to purchase firearms during COVID-19 might have been driven by anxiety that leaves them vulnerable to suicidal ideation,” says Michael Anestis, an associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health, in a university release. “While this does not guarantee an increase in suicide rates, it represents an unusually large surge in risk made more troubling by the fact that firearms purchased during COVID-19 may remain in homes beyond the pandemic.”

Demand for guns is skyrocketing during pandemic

Over the first four months of 2020, more than 2.5 million Americans purchased a gun for the first time. Two million firearms were sold in March alone.

“Firearm owners are usually no more likely than non-firearm owners to experience suicidal thoughts. It is possible that a higher-risk group is driving the current firearm purchasing surge, introducing long-term suicide risk into the homes of individuals who otherwise may not have acquired firearms during a time of extended social isolation, economic uncertainty and general upheaval,” explains Anestis, who is also the executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center.

Researchers surveyed 3,500 Americans during the study, with about one-third of that group being gun owners. The team asked each person why they bought a gun in the first place, their usual safety and storage methods, and if they ever dealt with suicidal thoughts.

Among the group of recent gun buyers reporting suicidal thoughts, 56 percent had experienced such thoughts within the previous year. One in four had felt suicidal over the past month. Conversely, only 24 percent of long-time gun owners felt suicidal over the past 12 months. Just 12 percent had experienced suicidal thoughts over the previous month.

More safety concerns among new owners

Researchers also discovered that people buying weapons this year tend to follow less than ideal safety practices with their firearm. These individuals are more likely to sometimes load their gun before storing it, remove locking devices, and have multiple hiding places for their weapons both inside and outside the home. Unsafe gun storage practices have been shown to increase suicide risk within gun-owning households.

“The increase in firearm purchases is concerning given that suicide is three times more likely in homes with firearms, and there is a hundred-fold increase in an individual’s suicide risk immediately following the purchase of a handgun,” Anestis concludes. “And unsafe firearm storage increases that risk.”

The study is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.