School of Public Health

Most gun-owning households in Washington state do not safely store firearms

UW Epi News
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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Sixty-three percent of firearm-owning households in Washington state do not store their firearms locked and unloaded, according to researchers at the University of Washington School of Public Health.

In findings published today in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers characterized the differences in suicide-risk behaviors among nearly 35,000 Washington firearm-owning and non-firearm-owning households. Such behaviors included safe-storage practices in firearm-owning households, alcohol use and mental health indicators.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, with almost half of those deaths involving a firearm. In Washington state in 2016, firearms were the leading method of suicide for men and the second leading method for women.

Numerous public health, medical, and firearm organizations across the nation define safe firearm storage as locked, unloaded, and out of reach of others. These barriers to firearm access can affect the risk for someone contemplating suicide.

“Access to lethal means is part of what’s fueling suicides,” said lead author Erin Morgan, a doctoral student in the Department of Epidemiology. “Public health workers, emergency responders and policy makers should push to tailor suicide interventions and trainings for safe storage practices with suicide risk and firearm access in mind. Temporarily restricting access to a firearm for someone at risk is an opportunity to save a life.”

Morgan and her colleagues analyzed data from the Washington State 2013, 2015 and 2016 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a national telephone survey run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It collects health data such as health-related risk behaviors.

They found that about 34 percent of survey respondents said they lived with a firearm in their home. These respondents were more likely to be older, white, male, retired and married. Of this population, only 37 percent said they lived in households in which firearms were stored locked and unloaded. These respondents tended to be younger, female, college graduates and reported having children under 18 living in the household.

The study also found no significant differences in mental health indicators between residents of gun-owning households and those in households without guns. However, among firearm-owning households in which safe gun storage was not practiced, alcohol misuse was more common. 

These findings provide the most recent evidence suggesting that policy makers and public health officials should take a closer look at how they approach suicide intervention when a gun is in the household, Morgan said.

The study recommends all states collect data inquiring about firearm ownership and storage practices via the CDC system. The practice was once standard nationally but has not been performed in many states in 14 years. Clinicians can also play a role in suicide risk intervention by discussing firearms and safety practices with their patients. Finally, community-based and national campaigns can educate firearm owners about safe storage practices.

This study was funded Grandmothers Against Gun Violence, a Washington state-based, grassroots organization. The study was a collaboration of the University of Washington, the Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center, and Public Health-Seattle & King County.