Although the rate of suicide among youth has been steadily declining since 1992, suicide remains a major public health threat. Homicide and suicide are the cause of one in four deaths among people ages 10–24 in the United States. The stress, confusion, and depression that often accompany adolescence may seem so overwhelming that some young people can find no way out other than taking their own life. The most common means of youth suicide in 2001 was firearms, which accounted for 49% of suicide deaths among youth ages 10–19.

In the 1990s, many federal and state laws were enacted with the intention of decreasing children’s access to firearms. These laws included establishing minimum-age restrictions for firearm purchase and possession, and requiring gun owners to store firearms in a manner that prohibits them to be easily accessed by children and adolescents. Proponents of these laws hoped that they would decrease rates of suicide, homicide, and unintentional shootings among youths.

A new study in the August 4, 2004 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association found that while minimum age restrictions for firearm purchase and possession did not affect youth suicide rates, gun safe storage laws were associated with an 8.3% decrease in suicide rates among youths ages 14–17.

About the Study

For this study, the researchers collected data on state-specific total, firearm, and non-firearm suicide rates among youth ages 14–20.

The researchers documented when participating states enacted youth-focused firearm laws during the study period, which included minimum purchase and possession age restrictions, and gun safe storage laws—also referred to as child access prevention (CAP) laws.

The researchers calculated the association between youth-focused firearm laws and the rates of total, firearm, and non-firearm suicides among youths in two age groups: 14–17 and 18–20. To control for other factors that might affect suicide rates, the researchers collected other data on religious affiliation, alcohol consumption, urban versus rural living, unemployment and race. They also documented state-specific patterns regarding suicide (i.e., ratio of adult firearm suicides to total suicides).

The Findings

During the study period, 21 states mandated a minimum handgun purchase age (ranging from 14 to 21), 29 states mandated a minimum handgun possession age (ranging from 15 to 21), and 18 states enacted CAP laws to protect children up to a certain age (ranging from 13 to 17). In addition, three states adopted a permit-to-purchase firearms licensing system.

Over the course of the study, 63,954 youths aged 14–20 committed suicide, 62% of which were committed with a firearm. Firearm suicide rates for youth ages 14–17 increased steadily from 2.6 (per 100,000 youth) in 1976 to 5.7 in 1994, and then declined rapidly to 2.5 in 2001. Changes in firearm suicide rates in youth ages 18–20 during this time were less dramatic.

In youth ages 14–17, there was no significant association between minimum firearm purchase and possession laws and suicide rates. When the researchers analyzed the 1976-1994 (period of increasing suicide rates) and 1995-2001 (period of a downturn in rates) data separately, CAP laws were associated with an 8.3% reduction in total suicide rates, including a 10.8% reduction in firearm suicide rates in this age group. But when the researchers did not assess these periods separately, there was no significant correlation between CAP laws and suicide rates. There was no significant association between permit-to-purchase licensing laws and suicide rates among youth ages 14–17.

The results in the 18–20 age group were also inconsistent. While laws mandating a minimum purchase age of 21 were associated with a decline in firearm suicide rates, laws in other states that increased the legal age for handgun possession to 21 years and those that required permit-to-purchase licensing were associated with an increase in total suicide rates. And although CAP laws were associated with a decline in suicide rates, the reductions were similar for firearm and non-firearm suicides.

How Does This Affect You?

These finding indicate that while laws that mandate a minimum age to purchase or possess firearms seem to have no affect on youth firearm suicide rates, CAP laws may help reduce suicide rates in youth ages 14–17. The seemingly contradictory and unpredictable findings indicate that other variables not controlled for in the study may have come into play.

While some of these findings are puzzling, the study no doubt underscores the importance of safe gun storage. If you have a gun in your home, take care to store it safely. Use a locking device or store the gun in a locked box or safe, and be sure to store it unloaded. And most importantly, make sure the gun is not accessible to children. Remember that if you ever have children in your home—whether they live there permanently or not—it is important to prevent their access to the gun. Also, be sure to familiarize yourself with the federal, state, and local laws concerning gun possession and storage.