Reduced access to firearms in the United States should lead to a substantial fall in firearm suicides, according to new research by Professor Matthew Lang, published in the December 2013 issue of the Economic Journal. His study finds that a rise in the number of background checks for gun purchases in a state significantly increases firearm suicide rates among male youths in the following year.


Analysing data from 1999 to 2007, the research shows that a 10 percentage point increase in the background check rate increases the firearm suicide rate per 100,000 by 0.4 in the following year. For the average state in the dataset, this means that increasing background checks in a state by 32,000 will lead to approximately 23 additional firearm suicides in the next year.


Although there are a number of US studies of the relationship between homicide and firearms, few focus primarily on suicide. This is despite the fact that there are 40% more firearms suicides in the United States than there are firearm homicides.


The new study is the first to be able to explore the direct relationship between changes in firearms in a state and the suicide rate. It does this by introducing a new measure of firearms to economic research: the FBI''s firearm background checks.


Since November 1998, firearm backgrounds checks are required for every new gun purchased from a licensed dealer. The checks are done by phone and typically take two minutes to complete. Although not all checks result in a purchase and the background checks do not capture purchases from private sellers, they measure the overall intention to purchase a firearm.


Because historical firearm data is sparse, the fraction of suicides that involve firearms has been one of the most commonly used measurements for guns in studies on firearms and crime. This study is able to confirm that using the fraction of firearm suicides is a reasonable proxy for firearms as any increases in the overall suicide rate is driven by firearm suicide rate increases.


The study finds that when the number of consumers intending to purchase a firearm increases, the firearm suicide rate per 100,000 increases in the following year. The overall suicide rate increases insignificantly when firearms increase, while non-firearm suicide rates are unaffected. The results suggest that increases in firearms may increase the overall suicide rate through increases in the firearm suicide rate.


The research also finds that although youths cannot purchase firearms or go through a background check, when more adults get firearm background checks, male youths are committing suicide using a firearm more often.


Matthew Lang comments:


''These results are useful as the gun control debate in the United States continues to develop. Reductions in firearm access should decrease firearm suicides significantly and may potentially reduce overall suicide.


''But while taking firearms away from a suicidal individual may initially prevent a suicide, it should be coupled with improvements in access to mental healthcare if there is to be a long-term impact on suicide.''


''Firearm Background Checks and Suicide'' by Matthew Lang is published in the December 2013 issue of the Economic Journal. Matthew Lang is at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio.