While United States public health members have focused on maintaining the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) since February of this year, gun sales in the country have skyrocketed, according to a recent report in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
More than 2.5 million firearms were sold this March, including 1.5 million handguns. Noted in the report, increased gun ownership is associated with a heightened risk for firearm-related suicide. Due to unprecedented times as the U.S. faces a pandemic, the country is dealing with a combination of a public health and economic disaster. The physical distancing necessary to curb the COVID-19 respiratory virus has interferred with the social lives of many in the country and world. Many people are living in isolation, and the mental health of the population will likely suffer. Combined, these forces create a climate with the potential to increase firearm-related suicides.
According to the report, firearm-related suicides were increasing well before COVID-19. From 2006 to 2018, firearm-related suicide rates increased by more than 25%. In 2018, there were 24,432 firearm-related suicides in the U.S. With suicide rates increasing, the number of firearm background checks increased, as well, from 10,036, 933 in 2006 to 28,369,750 in 2019. This was an annual increase of 14%.
In March 2020, gun sales rose up 85% compared to sales in March 2019. These are the highest firearm sales ever recorded in the U.S., the report says. Those who purchase handguns have a 22-fold higher rate of firearm-related suicide within the first year than those who did not purchase a handgun, the report says.
Among men, for every 10 percentage points increase in household firearm ownership rates at the state level, there is an increase in firearm suicides of 3.1 per 100, 000 persons, according to the report. Decreased gun restrictions and increased access to firearms are associated with higher firearm-related suicide. In addition, the presence of a firearm in a home is associated with a two- to 10-times greater risk for suicide than in a home without a firearm. This applies to all household members, not just the gun owner, and persists for years after the purchase of the firearms.
As COVID-19 brings upon new challenges for the world to face, the combination of factors could release a wave of suicide that is enabled by the growing exposure to household firearms.