October 30, 2018

For those concerned that a gun in their home could be involved in a family member’s suicide attempt, local law enforcement agencies and gun retailers can be a source of help by providing temporary gun storage, according to research published online October 11 in the American Journal of Public Health. The unique study is the first to examine how either entity can offer temporary gun storage to prevent suicide in their communities.

Dr. Robert Agans

Dr. Robert Agans

Robert Agans, PhD, associate professor in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Department of Biostatistics, is a co-author of the paper, “Law Enforcement and Gun Retailers as Partners for Safely Storing Guns to Prevent Suicide: A Study in 8 Mountain West States.” Sampling and data collection for the paper were conducted at the Gillings School’s Carolina Survey Research Laboratory, of which Dr. Agans is co-director.

The paper also was recently selected as one of the Best Papers of the Year for the 2018 AJPH Editor’s Choice Awards. The December 2018 issue of AJPH will feature a column discussing the winning publications, including this one.

In 2016, the team invited law enforcement agencies (LEAs) and managers of gun retail establishments in eight states in the Mountain U.S. to participate in a questionnaire, asking if they would be willing to offer voluntary, temporary gun storage as part of a suicide prevention effort. The surveyed states – Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming – have both statistically higher rates of gun ownership and higher rates of suicide.

In 2015, half of all suicide attempts involved guns, which are the most lethal means of attempting suicide, resulting in death 91 percent of the time. Reducing access to lethal means of suicide, such as guns, is vital for suicide prevention – as is creating a plan to remove such items from the home. As LEAs and gun retailers are already sources of information on safe gun and ammunition storage, the study sought to uncover the extent to which they could partner with families to find temporary gun storage in times of perceived suicide risk.

Nearly 75 percent of LEAs responded that they already engage in this practice, compared with almost half (47 percent) of gun retailers. LEAs were most receptive to providing temporary gun storage if the owner were concerned about a gun’s potential use in the suicide of a family member, and retailers were more likely than LEAs to providing gun storage for visitors and travelers. Both groups encouraged safety measures, such as locking away guns at home, but LEAs were slightly more in favor of storing guns away from the home.

Agans said the results were encouraging, especially given that the survey took place in a region of the country with many gun owners who are very passionate about ownership. That the team found the gun retailers and law enforcement agencies open to a dialogue on this issue suggests they could play a significant role in public health initiatives to prevent suicide in these communities.

“There is a big possibility that this could truly bridge the gap on very sensitive gun issues,” Agans said. “Gun stores are retail facilities, not storage facilities. That they were willing to discuss temporarily storing guns to prevent suicides in homes is really honorable. Finding these results in a region that has the highest rates for gun ownership, as well as high rates for suicide, could have far-reaching implications for the public nationwide.”


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