New research suggests that heightened threat perceptions play an important role in the link between firearm ownership and suicide. The findings appear in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.
(If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or follow this link to their online chat.)
“My interest in firearm suicide has been largely influenced by my experience as a military veteran,” said study author Craig J. Bryan of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
“Military veterans are more likely to die by suicide using a firearm than civilians, so if we are going to reduce suicides in that population, we need to focus more time and effort on understanding how firearm ownership is related to suicidal thoughts and behaviors.”
The study of 6,200 American adults found that rates of suicidal thoughts and behaviors were higher among gun owners who kept a firearm in or around their home primarily for self-protection, compared to non-gun owners and those who kept a firearm for other reasons, such as hunting. “These patterns were unchanged when narrowing our focus to active suicidal ideation and suicide attempts specifically,” the researchers noted.
Gun owners who kept a firearm primarily for protection were 2.6 times more likely to report suicidal behavior during the preceding month compared to other gun owners and 3.2 times more likely to report suicidal behavior compared to non-gun owners.
The researchers also found evidence that heightened threat perceptions played a role. Even after controlling for environmental safety, protective gun owners were more likely to agree with statements such as “People can’t be trusted”, “I can’t rely on other people”, and “People are not what they seem,” which in turn was linked to suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
“What this study suggests is that people who view the world as a dangerous place and do not believe that other people can be trusted are more likely to acquire a firearm, typically as a way to protect themselves,” Bryan told PsyPost.
“For some firearm owners, acquiring a firearm doesn’t change these threat perceptions however; they still view people with suspicion and think the world is dangerous. To them, firearms are seen as a way to achieve a sense of safety and security, but their firearms may actually just make things worse because they serve as a reminder of how dangerous the world is.”
“This negative worldview may increase suicidal thoughts and risk for suicide attempts, perhaps because it is also associated with feeling isolated and alone, and feeling like no one cares about you. Firearm acquisition and ownership may inadvertently serve as a barrier that keeps someone separate or apart from others, thereby increasing the risk of suicide,” Bryan explained.
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“The biggest caveat is that this study used self-report methods and was cross-sectional. We are about to start some new studies that look at these issues in greater depth with computerized tasks, interviews, and other laboratory methods,” Bryan said.
The study, “Associations among exaggerated threat perceptions, suicidal thoughts, and suicidal behaviors in U.S. firearm owners“, was authored by Craig J. Bryan, AnnaBelle O. Bryan, and Michael D. Anestis.