Harvard Chan School experts shed light on link between guns and suicides, gun injuries

December 12, 2022 – The relationship between firearms and suicide, as well as firearms injury data, were among the topics of studies from experts at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that appeared in the December 2022 issue of the journal Preventive Medicine.

Part A of the issue was devoted exclusively to firearms research. Harvard Chan School contributors to the issue included David Hemenway, professor of health policy and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center (HICRC), who also served as one of three guest editors; Catherine Barber, research associate in the Department of Health Policy and Management and HICRC senior researcher; Matthew Miller, HICRC co-director; and Deborah Azrael, HICRC director of research.

Hemenway co-authored an editorial that acknowledged a surge in gun violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, but that also noted that there’s been a surge in research about such violence. The authors wrote, “The 32 articles in this special issue represent the leading edge of gun violence prevention research, and a hopeful path for the future.”

Hemenway also co-authored an article that examined patterns of household gun ownership and firearm suicide among Black men compared to white men. Looking at three years’ worth of CDC health-related survey data from thousands of Americans, the authors found that, while Black men are much less likely than white men to live in households with guns, the likelihood of living in a home with a gun increases with age among both Black and white men. However, although firearm suicides among white men increased along with their age, the pattern didn’t hold for Black men. In fact, the firearm suicide rate among Black men was highest among those who were younger  (18–29)—even though they were far less likely to live in homes with firearms.

Barber co-authored a study about the lack of data on nonfatal firearms injuries in the U.S., discussing reforms that are needed to generate timely, accurate, publicly accessible data from hospitals and police.

An article co-authored by Miller and Azrael also explored nonfatal firearms injuries in the U.S. Using statistical methods that allow for uncertainty regarding missing data, the authors estimated that the annual number of firearm injuries remained relatively flat between 2006 and 2016.

Barber, Miller, Hemenway, and Azrael also co-authored an article that appeared in Preventive Medicine’s November 2022 issue. The article looked at who owned the gun in firearm suicides of men, women, and youth in five U.S. states—Alaska, Iowa, New Hampshire, Utah, and Wisconsin—from 2015 to 2017. Using data from the U.S. National Violent Death Reporting System, the authors found that, for adult males, 88% used their own gun; for women, 52% used their own gun and 32% used their partner’s gun; for youth ages 18–20, 42% used their own gun, 43% used a family member’s and 8% used a friend’s; and for children, 19% used their own gun and 79% used a family member’s gun.

“In times of suicide risk, interventions for a youth should address not only the parents’ guns, but those of other family members and the youth’s own rifle or shotgun,” the authors wrote. “For a woman, interventions need to address her own and her partner’s guns. For a man locking guns alone will confer little protection if he controls the keys or combination. Storing firearms—or a critical component—away from home or having someone else control the locks may be safer.”