The recent crash of the coronavirus caused an increase in gun sales in California. There were 164,000 background checks for gun purchases in March, a 72% increase from the previous month and one of the highest months in the past two decades. May was the third highest amount of background checks to buy weapons and ammunition in the program’s history.
The buying level is almost the level of the 2016 pre-presidential elections. Almost all the presidential elections are marked by an increase in firearm sales for fear that the new administration will hinder arms sales.
California is not alone at this peak. Texas, Arizona, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Michigan and many others have more than a 90% increase in firearm sales in one year. Some states far exceed 100% compared to the previous March. Much of this was fueled by the coronavirus pandemic and the busiest weeks were at the start of orders to stay home.
Weapons research has been limited in the past due to a shortage of federal funds and, in part, due to researchers’ admitted fear of threats. The 1996 Dickey Amendment mandated that none of the CDC funds be used to promote or advocate for gun control. Although it doesn’t technically stop the investigation, it joined congressional instructions to redirect all the money being spent on firearms research to traumatic brain injury. This March, our Congress quietly but explicitly stated that the CDC can investigate armed violence, but did not provide specific or new funding for such an investigation.
A recent study, funded without federal dollars, reported suicide risk for unowned owners and new gun owners in California. Thanks to California’s strong reporting requirements on arms transfers and purchases, researchers were able to track 676,425 people who purchased a weapon and then compare their death rates with the rest of California’s population. This is the largest study of new gun owners and also one of the only studies to examine the time period from purchase to self-harm.
Over a 12-year period, male gun owners had a 3.34 times higher suicide rate than men without a gun, for women the suicide rate was 7.16 times higher, while death rates for all other illnesses were the same. Some suicidal people would be expected to go out and buy a gun and that will only skew the numbers. In fact, the first 20 days after getting a gun is associated with a 100-fold increase in suicide risk compared to before purchase.
A depressed person who buys a firearm should be a warning sign. And anyone trying to evaluate or help a depressed person should ask about a recent gun purchase or intent to purchase one.
However, suicide after purchase did not explain all the risk differences. Just over half of firearm suicides occurred after the first year of ownership. This implies that the person did not buy the weapon with the intention of committing suicide.
This study also failed to assess the benefit of the 10-day waiting period in California. Suicide can be an impulsive decision, and many states do not have a waiting period to purchase a firearm. A 10-day waiting period may actually save some people from suicide, as they may seek help or change their minds during that time period.
All of this is important in the context of our social tensions. Isolation from the social distancing of the coronavirus, unemployment from shutdowns, illness and death from infection, and accompanying feelings of loss of control can increase stress, anxiety, and depression. This is not the time to buy weapons. This is a time to help each other recover and cope.
Dr. Salvatore Iaquinta is a head and neck surgeon at Kaiser Permanente San Rafael and author of “The year they tried to kill me”. It takes you on the highway to health every fourth Monday.