AJPM Nov. 16th, 2020 | "Future research should seek to further understand those who purchased a firearm during COVID-19 and determine ways to increase secure storage among firearm owners."
Posted on November 21 2020
Given the increase in firearm purchases during the COVID-19 pandemic, this study seeks to determine the extent to which COVID-19 firearm purchasers differ in terms of suicide risk from nonfirearm owners and firearm owners who did not make a purchase during COVID-19.
Participants (N=3,500) were recruited through Qualtrics Panels to participate in an online survey examining methods for self-protection. ANCOVAs were utilized to assess suicidal ideation. Multivariate ANCOVAs were used to examine firearm storage practices and storage changes during COVID-19. Data were collected in late June and early July 2020, and analyses were conducted in July 2020.
Individuals who purchased a firearm during COVID-19 more frequently reported lifetime, past-year, and past-month suicidal ideation than nonfirearm owners and firearm owners who did not make a purchase during COVID-19. COVID-19 purchasers with lifetime ideation were less likely to hide loaded firearms in a closet than those without lifetime ideation. COVID-19 purchasers with past-year or past-month ideation were more likely to use locking devices than COVID-19 purchasers without past-month ideation.
In contrast to firearm owners more generally, COVID-19 firearm purchasers appear far more likely to have experienced suicidal ideation and appear less likely to use certain unsafe firearm storage methods but also report a greater number of storage changes during COVID-19 that made firearms less secure. Future research should seek to further understand those who purchased a firearm during COVID-19 and determine ways to increase secure storage among firearm owners.
In late 2019, coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) emerged. Local and federal governments have enforced social distancing in an effort to slow the spread. Such interventions physically separate people, which is an effective method for preventing the spread of infectious diseases. However, some interventions may also lead to unintended consequences such as unemployment and social isolation, which are risk factors for suicide. Indeed, indicators of poor mental health nationwide have been increasing in severity during the pandemic. This has led to concerns regarding increased suicide risk.
Another consequence of the pandemic is increased firearms sales in the U.S. An estimated 2 million firearms were purchased in March 2020, and >2.5 million Americans became first-time gun owners during the first 4 months of 2020. The increase in firearm purchases is concerning given the association between firearms and suicide. Firearm ownership is robustly associated with suicide (e.g., mental illness and the risk is increased for all household members. Risk for suicide surges by 100-fold immediately after the purchase of a handgun. In addition, unsafe firearm storage (e.g., loaded and unlocked) increases the risk. Furthermore, in some populations (e.g., service members), suicidal firearm owners are more likely to store firearms unsafely.
Thus far, it is unknown whether those who have and have not purchased a firearm during COVID-19 differ in terms of suicide risk. One study utilizing a convenience sample (N=1,105) from Amazon's Mechanical Turk conducted in the opening week of May 2020 found few demographic differences between individuals who had and those who had not purchased firearms in the initial months of the pandemic. This survey, however, did not assess for suicidal ideation and included purchases that predated the initial surge of COVID-19 cases. COVID-19 firearm purchasers may be at particularly heightened risk given their recent purchase and pandemic-related consequences compared with other firearm owners and nonfirearm owners. Furthermore, individuals motivated to purchase firearms during COVID-19 may represent a different group of individuals, perhaps driven by anxiety potentially accompanied by a history of suicidal ideation. In this sense, a cohort effect could exist, resulting in a higher-risk group of individuals driving the firearm purchasing surge, thereby introducing long-term suicide risk into the homes of individuals who otherwise may not have acquired firearms. This study seeks to determine the extent to which those who acquired firearms during COVID-19 differ from those who did not in terms of suicide risk. Exploratory analyses examine whether suicidal ideation is associated with less-safe storage methods more generally and storage changes specifically during COVID-19. Each of these analyses is considered on the basis of lifetime suicidal ideation, past-year suicidal ideation, and past-month suicidal ideation. Given that many of the firearms purchased during COVID-19 will remain in homes after the pandemic, these findings may have implications for firearm safety and suicide prevention efforts beyond the context of the current moment.
Participants were 3,500 U.S. residents (51.5% female, mean age=46.09 years, 66.5% White) recruited using Qualtrics Panel, an online survey platform that maintains a database of millions of U.S. residents who have previously volunteered to participate in survey-based studies. Quota sampling was utilized to enroll a sample demographically matched to 2010 Census distributions for age, sex, race/ethnicity, income, and education. Panel members were invited to participate in the survey through e-mail invitation, which included a link that redirected them to the study's page. The landing page included information about the study's design, purpose, risks, and benefits. Consent to participate was provided by checking a box indicating consent. After completing the survey, participants were compensated in the form and amount agreed on when they joined the panel. Participants were eligible if they were aged ≥18 years. The study procedures were reviewed and approved by the necessary review boards.
Demographic information was collected using items assessing age, sex, race, ethnicity, highest educational attainment, and annual household income. Firearm ownership was assessed using a single item asking: Do you currently own a firearm? Acquisition of a firearm during COVID-19 was assessed using an item asking: Have you purchased a firearm during the COVID-19 pandemic? Firearm storage was assessed using an item asking: Which of the following storage procedures do you use for the firearms currently located in or around your home? (select all that are used), with the following answers: gun safe; gun cabinet; locking device (e.g., cable lock, trigger lock); hard cases (e.g., pelican case); hide in closet or drawer, unloaded; hide in a closet or drawer, loaded; and other safety procedure. Reasons for acquiring firearms during COVID-19 were assessed using an item asking: What were your reasons for acquiring a firearm during the COVID-19 pandemic? (choose all that apply). Firearm storage changes during COVID-19 were assessed using an item asking: Have you recently changed your firearm(s) storage practices because of the COVID-19 pandemic? If participants endorsed making changes owing to COVID-19, they were then asked: How has your firearm(s) storage practices changed since COVID-19? (choose all that apply). To determine the level of change, this item was summed such that there was a more secure variable and less secure variable. Possible storage change options included unloaded ≥1 firearm, loaded ≥1 firearm, removed locking device from ≥1 firearm, placed a locking device on ≥1 firearm, removed ≥1 firearm from a safe/lock box, placed ≥1 firearm in a safe/lock box, stored ≥1 firearm outside the home, stored ≥1 firearm inside the home, and other. Other was not included in the total. These changes represent an overall number of types of storage changes made across all of an individual's firearms and, as such, cannot be said to represent the storage practice of each individual firearm. Instead, these change variables represent the extent to which individuals made adjustments to storage practices overall during this timeframe and the extent to which such changes involved rendering firearms more or less secure.
Suicidal ideation was assessed with the self-report version of the Self-Injurious Thoughts and Behaviors Interview-Revised. This tool assesses for suicidal ideation by asking participants to identify which of 8 different suicide-related thoughts they have experienced in their lifetime, the past year, and the past month. For this study, an individual was considered to have suicidal ideation for a given timeframe if they endorsed any of the 8 suicide-related thoughts during that timeframe.
Between-group differences in reports of experiencing lifetime, past-year, and past-month suicidal ideation were examined using logistic regression. Age, sex, education, and annual household income served as covariates. Differences in general firearm storage practices were considered using chi-square analyses. Changes in storage practices specifically during COVID-19 were examined using a series of multivariate ANCOVAs.
Demographic characteristics can be found in Table 1.
Table 1Analyses Examining Demographic Differences Between Groups