People with serious mental illnesses who use firearms to commit suicide usually bought them legally, according to a new study conducted in Florida by Duke University.
A study published Monday in the journal Health Affairs analyzed the violent and suicidal behavior of 81,704 people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression in Florida’s Miami-Dade and Pinellas counties.
Researchers found that of the 254 subjects who had committed suicide, 50 had used a gun. Of these, 72 percent of managed to obtain the weapon legally, despite having a documented history of involuntary mental health examinations.
“Our federal gun regulations pertaining to mental illness prohibit lots of people from accessing firearms who are not violent, and never will be,” coauthor Jeffrey W. Swanson of Duke University said in a statement. “At the same time, they fail to identify some people who will be violent or suicidal. With these data, we can improve criteria for restrictions that might actually reduce gun violence, but also carefully balance risk and rights.”
The focus on mental illness when discussing the problem of gun violence in the US is “both wrong and right at the same time.” Swanson said in a Duke Health video. Mental illness contributes very little overall to interpersonal violence such as gun crime, but a gun is involved in two-thirds of suicides in the country, he said.
Swanson says the fact that people who have been treated but are still at risk can buy guns is a “lost public health opportunity,” since states could keep guns away from people during the time between involuntary commitment and mental stability.
“States could say, ‘let’s use this as a time to separate that individual from guns.’ It is an opportunity because those records already exist,” he said. “That experience is common in other states and I’d like to do another study to find out how well it works, comparing states who are doing this and those who are not.”