Suicide Rates Reduced by Handgun Control

States with universal background checks experienced a decrease in suicides between 2013 and 2014.

Mandatory waiting periods and background checks for individuals seeking to purchase guns lower statewide rates of suicide by firearms, according to a study conducted by Michael D. Anestis, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg.1

Firearms are implicated in approximately half of all suicide deaths in the United States, and a significant body of literature has pointed to an association between firearm ownership and suicide. Previous research has found a significant association between statewide overall suicide rates and state laws regulating handgun ownership. The study was undertaken to examine the extent to which 4 laws regulating handgun ownership — mandatory waiting periods, universal background checks, gunlock requirements, and open carry limitations — were associated with statewide suicide rate changes.

The researchers analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System of statewide suicide rates between 2013 and 2014, and obtained rates of suicidal ideation and depression from the National Surveys on Drug Use and Health.

The researchers found that states with universal background checks had a decrease of 0.29 suicides per 100,000 people from 2013 to 2014, while states without such laws had an increase of 0.85 per 100,000 people (η p2=0.10). States with mandatory waiting periods had a decrease of 0.38 suicides per 100,000 people compared with states without such laws, which showed an increase of 0.71 per 100,000 people (ηp22=0.11). Effect sizes were medium to large.

While states with universal background checks as well as mandatory waiting periods reported a decrease of 0.76 suicides per 100,000 people, states that had neither law saw an increase of 1.04 suicides per 100,000 people. The researchers described the overall effect size and the effect sizes for the significant contrast (η p2=0.20 and η p2=0.16 respectively) as “large.”

The regulation of gun lock use or restriction of open carry of handguns did not differ between states with and without these laws, the researchers reported.

“Contrary to our expectations, not all firearm legislation appears to be equally effective as a suicide prevention tool,” the investigators wrote, noting that waiting periods and background checks are implemented before the purchase of a handgun, while open carry and gun lock laws apply to gun owners once the gun has been purchased.

“These data indicate that legislative efforts may be better spent regulating who can possess a handgun, as opposed to restricting or enabling access for those already in possession of a handgun,” the investigators commented, suggesting that after point of purchase, “nonlegislative efforts such as lethal means safety counseling should be considered.”

They stated that the limitations of their study include the limited range of years studied and the inability to analyze the impact of the timing of law implementation had on the findings. In addition, the analysis was restricted to only 4 handgun laws, and to the examination of only handguns as opposed to long guns.

Nevertheless, the researchers emphasized that their study had important public health implications. In particular, legislation focusing on waiting periods and background checks may reduce risk or may delay or prevent access to a gun by “high-risk individuals who may not otherwise be identified as experiencing suicidal ideation.”

These laws may serve a “nonredundant suicide prevention function, relative to traditional treatment and prevention efforts, increasing the reach of prevention by systematically addressing gun access across the entire population.”

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Anestis MD, Anestis JC, Butterworth SE. Handgun legislation and changes in statewide overall suicide rates. Am J Public Health. 2017;107(4):579-581. doi:open carry 10.2105/AJPH.2016.303650. Epub 2017 Feb 16.