April 13, 2020 Press Releases

Increased Risk Of Firearm Suicide During COVID-19

Spike in gun purchases, social distancing, and other stressors heighten risk of firearm suicide

SEATTLE, WA – The disruptions brought on by COVID-19 paired with the spike in gun purchases heightens the risk of firearm suicide in Washington state and across the country. Risk factors for suicide include stressful life events, social isolation, hopelessness, helplessness, and access to lethal means. Each of these factors will be exacerbated as the country deals with COVID-19. 

The best tool available for fighting the lethal coronavirus—social distancing—threatens to worsen social isolation, uncertainty, and financial hardship, which can contribute to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. 

In the last three weeks, more than 16 million Americans have lost their jobs. That is more job losses than the 2008 recession produced over two years. In Washington state, nearly half a million people have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus and the state is bracing for more claims in the coming weeks. 

In the United States and Europe, suicide rates rise about 1 percent for every one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate. During the Great Recession, unemployment peaked at 10 percent in the U.S. and suicide rates spiked as well, resulting in thousands more deaths. 

Social distancing also makes it much more difficult for individuals to access needed mental health care as providers adapt to office closures. And job loss often means loss of health insurance and therefore coverage for mental health services.  

Finally, when it comes to suicide, means matter greatly. Access to firearm in the home increases the risk of suicide three-fold. And firearms are by far the most lethal suicide method with close to nine out of 10 attempts being fatal. As people panic-buy firearms and ammunition in response to COVID-19, they are increasing the risk of suicide. 

Suicide accounts for about 75 percent of all gun deaths in Washington state. All the factors outlined above threaten to drive that number even higher. Fortunately, there are several innovative and effective tools available to help families, people in crisis, care providers, and law enforcement prevent firearm suicide. Five of those policies are outlined below. 

Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs)
Extreme Risk Protection Orders, established through Initiative 1491 in 2016, give law enforcement or families, through a court process, a legal pathway to remove guns from an individual who poses a threat to themselves or others. Research has shown that as many as 10 suicides are prevented for every 100 guns removed by Extreme Risk Protection Orders. Learn more about ERPOs here

Voluntary Waivers
Since January 2019, Washingtonians have been able to voluntarily request that they be placed on a list of individuals ineligible to purchase firearms. The policy, which only requires individuals to fill out a simple form and present it to a specified court official (along with identification), empowers individuals who know they may be at risk to take their safety into their own hands. Washington is currently the only state in the country with this simple, commonsense tool. More on voluntary waivers here

Access Prevention
In 2018, Washington voters passed Initiative 1639 which incentivizes gun owners to safely store their firearms by holding irresponsible gun owners legally responsible if their firearm falls into the hands of a child or another prohibited person. Safe storage creates a meaningful barrier between suicidal thoughts and action. This policy will also help keep guns out of the hands of children and teens, who often die as a result of self-inflicted gunshot wounds from firearms found in the home. More on dangerous access prevention here

Firearms and 72-Hour Involuntary Holds
Individuals in crisis are often held for 72 hours under Washington’s Involuntary Treatment Act. Thanks to a law passed in 2019, these individuals who are exhibiting dangerous behavior will be subject to a temporary, six-month prohibition on firearms possession or purchase, helping to ensure that they and their families have time to seek treatment.

Temporary Emergency Transfers 
In 2017, Washington’s firearm transfer statutes were amended to allow for temporary emergency transfer of firearms between private citizens in order to prevent suicide. This change allows a gun owner in crisis to give their firearms to a trusted person for safekeeping until they no longer pose a threat to themselves. 

Individuals in crisis in King County should call 866-427-4747 or text 2-1-1 to be connected to Crisis Connections. Outside King County, individuals should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.