December 11, 2017  

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Professor, Students’ Research on Firearms Safety and Suicide Published

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Links between firearms safety and suicide rates is the focus of research by an associate professor of psychology and two graduate students at The University of Southern Mississippi that was recently featured in an academic journal.

Dr. Michael Anestis, director of the USM Department of Psychology's Suicide and Emotion Dysregulation Laboratory, along with clinical psychology doctoral students Sarah Butterworth of Fairfax, Va. and Claire Houtsma of Chicago, recently published “Perceptions of firearms and suicide: The role of misinformation in storage practices and openness to means safety measures” in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

The project included a survey of 300 American firearm owners. Despite decades of research indicating firearm ownership and safe storage methods’ association with suicide risk, the majority of those surveyed believed there was no relationship, and, furthermore, reported they tended to store their firearms less safely than gun owners who believe there is a relationship.   

For Anestis, the survey’s most concerning element is those who see no relationship between firearms and suicide expressed a lack of willingness to store their firearms more safely, or to temporarily remove them from the home in order to prevent their own future suicide attempt, or a suicide attempt by somebody else at their home. 

According to national statistics cited by Anestis, firearms account for approximately half of all suicide deaths in the United States - more than 22,000 firearm suicide deaths each year. Anestis said the research project demonstrates that efforts to work with the firearm owning community - a vital step in suicide prevention - face a profound obstacle in that many firearm owners have deeply held beliefs about firearms and suicide that run counter to scientific evidence.

“The story of American suicide is a story about firearms and any effort to reduce the suicide rate will have to involve firearms,” Anestis said. “This could mean a lot of things, but the simplest would be for firearm owners to store their firearms more safely - in a secure location, unloaded, separate from ammunition, and using a locking device such as a cable lock - but if firearm owners see no connection between firearms and suicide, it seems unlikely that they will embrace these ideas.

“Firearms are a difficult and polarizing topic, but scientists need to find a way to reach these individuals in a non-threatening and respectful manner so that we can work together to save lives.”

Butterworth and Houtsma concur with Anestis, and hope the research project serves as a guide for scientists and their partners within the firearm-owning community toward alternative avenues for achieving safe firearm storage.

It makes sense to Butterworth that gun owners unaware of the relationship between firearms and suicide risk are unmotivated to engage in safety strategies.

“How many people would wear seat belts if they didn't know doing so could save their life? Research for the sake of research isn't sufficient, especially when more than 22,000 Americans die from a preventable cause every year,” she said. “This work has the potential to bring about real change by highlighting a gap in gun owners' knowledge about firearms and suicide, and prompting a discussion about changes in firearm storage practices to increase safety."

Houtsma said evidence-based information about the relationship between firearms and suicide should continue to be disseminated, and believes it would also be helpful to work toward identifying specific firearm owner beliefs that offer stronger motivation for changing storage practices. “This would allow us to engage in culturally competent conversations about firearm storage, without requiring a fundamental change in those beliefs,” she said.

Dr. Anestis has a book set for publication by Oxford University Press in January, Guns and suicide: An American epidemic, in which he attempts to bridge the gap between gun owners and non-gun owners in discussing the role of guns in suicide, and how means safety can be leveraged to lower the national suicide rate.

For information about the USM Department of Psychology’s Suicide and Emotion Dysregulation Laboratory, visit http://mikeanestis.weebly.com/.