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Suicide Rates Among Young People Spiked After Missouri Loosened Gun Laws, Study Finds

Firearm suicides among young adults in Missouri jumped by nearly 22% after lawmakers repealed the state's permit-to-purchase law, according to a recent analysis from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Maria Fabrizio
Firearm suicides among young adults in Missouri jumped by nearly 22% after lawmakers repealed the state's permit-to-purchase law, according to a recent analysis from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Gun-related suicides among young people in Missouri rose sharply after legislators relaxed state gun laws, based on a new report from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Missouri has had one of the highest rates of gun deaths in the U.S. for the past decade, many of which are suicides among teenagers and young adults.

In 2018, a young person died every four days in the state due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Missouri lawmakers have whittled down gun regulations in recent years, shaping them into some of the least restrictive in the nation. Gun-related suicides among young adults ages 19 to 24 had been declining since at least 1999, according to the analysis of publicly available data. But in 2007, firearm suicide rates in this age group jumped by nearly 22% after the state eliminated its permit-to-purchase requirement.

The law had previously required Missourians to submit an application to their local sheriff's office before purchasing a handgun from licensed dealers or private sellers. Since the 1920s, it served as an “extra step” in the gun buying process, said study co-author and University of Missouri-Kansas City psychiatry resident Apurva Bhatt, “to make sure that those who were getting a firearm could have it safely.”

Though it’s difficult to track how many guns are purchased in Missouri each year, she said, repealing the law may have allowed more people to buy guns and made them more accessible.

“We saw a pretty drastic decline in non-firearm suicide rates, suggesting that potentially people were switching to firearm methods,” Bhatt said.

‘It’s all about access’

Previous research has found similar results, reporting a 16% increase in overall firearm suicide rates in Missouri following the law change.

Still, the trend in gun-related suicides appears to extend beyond Missouri’s elimination of the permit-to-purchase law. The University of Missouri-Kansas City analysis finds subsequent changes to the state’s gun laws have been followed by a spike in firearm suicide rates among teenagers.

In 2014, lawmakers reduced the legal age to obtain a concealed carry permit to 19 years old — and afterwards, gun suicide rates rose by 32% among Missouri teenagers aged 14 to 18 years old.

Though underlying factors driving the pattern are still unclear, said study co-author Jeffrey Metzner, the legislative change may have made it easier for young teens to access guns in the home.

“It's possible as more people buy weapons that could be used in concealed carry, they're also then not keeping them as safely,” said Metzner, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and director of acute psychiatric services at Truman Medical Center.

It’s not a coincidence that suicide rates among teenagers and adolescents increased after Missouri loosened its gun restrictions, said Lindsay Clukies, pediatric emergency room physician at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

“It’s all about access,” Clukies said. “We know that states with more restrictive firearm laws have lower rates of suicide, unintentional injuries and firearm-related injuries as a whole.”

Barring a change to state law, controlling access to firearms in the home is one of the most direct ways to reduce the risk, she added.

St. Louis Children’s Hospital has begun a gun screening program for all patients who come to the emergency room in an effort to provide informal safety training. Physicians ask the roughly 60,000 patients and their families who visit the ER each year whether they have guns at home and how they’re stored.

Families can also take a free gun lock from a basket in the hospital’s waiting room, no questions asked.

“We need to treat this like any other preventable injury,” Clukies said. “As pediatricians, we talk about car seats and safe sleep, but we need to be better about talking with families about guns. It’s not political, it’s science and it’s safety.”

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Shahla Farzan is a PhD ecologist and science podcast editor at American Public Media. She was previously a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.