Study: Firearm deaths at home largely due to suicide

Finding parallels previous literature suggesting self-protection should be weighed against risks of homicide and suicide, researcher says.

The availability of firearms at home is associated with an increased risk of suicide and homicides inside the home, according to a study published today in JAMA Internal Medicine. The finding echoes existing literature on the topic, indicating not much has changed in 30 years.

Researchers at UW Medicine’s Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center (HIPRC) examined firearm deaths from 2011 to 2018, using data from the King County Medical Examiner’s Office and the Washington State Homocide Investigation Tracking System. For every firearm-related self-defense homicide in the home, there were 0.9 unintentional deaths, 7.3 criminal homicides, and 44.1 suicides.  

In a study of similar data from 1978 to 1983, for every self-protection homicide involving a firearm kept in the home, there were 1.3 accidental deaths, 4.6 criminal homicides, and 37 suicides involving firearms.

“We found that firearm-related deaths in the home are still more frequently the result of suicide or criminal homicide, rather than self-defense homicide,” said lead author Elissa Butler, a surgery postdoctoral fellow.

The findings suggest that the potential benefits of firearm ownership for personal protection should be weighed against the risk of loss of life from suicide and criminal homicide, she said. 

Butler’s research updated the study of 1978-1983 gunshot deaths in King County, whose results were published by UW researchers in 1986: 743 firearm-related deaths occurred during this six-year period, 398 of which (54 percent) occurred in the residence where the firearm was kept. Two of these 398 deaths (0.5 percent) involved an intruder who was shot during attempted entry. Seven persons (1.8 percent) were killed in self-defense.

In the recent study, 647 firearm deaths occurred in homes: 82% were determined to be suicides, 15% were homicides, and 2% were unintentional deaths.  Among the suicide deaths, the victims' median age was 48 and 83% were male.

Other authors included Hanne Boveng, Richard Harruff, Jeffrey Duchin, Monica Vavilala, Frederick Rivara, and Ali Rowhani-Rahbar. The project received funding (5T32HD057822-10, 1R25HD094336-01) from the National Institutes of Health. This research was part of HIPRC’s Firearm Injury & Policy Research Program.

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