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Access to Firearms for Teens at Risk for Suicide: Two New Studies with Concerning Findings

May 22, 2023

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents. Firearm access is strongly associated with youth suicide. How common is firearm access for teens at risk of suicide, and what factors are associated with access? We are releasing two new studies this month that address these questions.

Hullenaar et al from the University of Washington (10.1542/peds.2022-060610) analyze data from the 2019-2021 Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) project that included almost 2,300 teenagers aged 10- to 15-years from 5 different sites. These youth were asked about their ability to get a gun and were evaluated for mental health risk factors including suicide risk. Their caregivers were also assessed for mental health risk factors.

Overall 20% of these adolescents reported living in a firearm-owning household and 5% reported “easy” firearm access, with those in a firearm-owning home 4 times more likely to have easy access. Regardless of ease of access, teens with any lifetime risk of suicide were almost two and a half times more likely to report easy access to a firearm than those without any history of suicide risk.  If a caregiver in a firearm-owning home had a history of a mental health or an externalizing problem (e.g., alcohol or drug use), their teen child was 1.7 and 2.3 times more likely than other caregivers to have easy firearm access.

The other study, by Haasz et al (10.1542/peds.2022-059532) from the University of Colorado School of Medicine, evaluated the prevalence of firearm possession and access among high school-aged teens with a recent history of depression or a lifetime history of suicidality (DLHS), based on a cross-sectional web survey conducted in the summer 2020 of more than 1900 parent-teen dyads reporting whether they currently possessed a firearm or could access a firearm.

Overall, 22.6% of teens reported DLHS, 11.%% reported personal possession of a firearm, and 44% said they could easily access a firearm. The ability of teens with DLHS to own or access a firearm was significantly higher than non-DLHS peers. There was no association between DLHS and personal firearm possession. However, teens with DLHS said they were more likely to acquire their firearm by buying or trading for it rather than accessing a firearm already in the home.

While both studies underscore the important role we play in educating families who own firearms to practice safe storage, they also note that doing so is not enough since teens can acquire firearms other ways from outside the home. Both studies discuss what we can do to prevent this from happening and call on us to advocate for state and federal policies that can limit teen firearm access. Link to both of these important studies and think how they might change the counseling you give to families in your practice in regard to firearm safety and by doing so, potentially preventing a teen at risk for suicide from gaining access to a firearm that could result in a fatal injury.

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