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March 22, 2022 — People with symptoms of moderate to severe depression are more likely than others to say they purchased a firearm recently or plan to do so in the future, a new study reveals.

“Since both depression and firearm ownership are major risk factors for suicide, we wanted to understand how many people have both of these risk factors,” says lead author Roy H. Perlis, MD.

The pandemic could be making matters worse.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple surveys have shown that rates of depression are substantially higher than before the pandemic, and we see similar elevation in suicidal thoughts,” says Perlis, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

On a positive note, although more people report thinking about suicide, so far, this increase has not led to more actual suicides in the United States, he says.

The survey reveals 31% of those who report moderate or more severe symptoms of depression also own a firearm. Researchers found no significant link between depression and gun ownership in general.

But people who said they have this level of depression were 77% more likely to have purchased a firearm during the pandemic. They also were 53% more likely to think about buying a gun in the next 4 months. Both these findings were statistically significant.

The study was published online Monday in the journal JAMA Network Open.

Unique Reasons for Buying a Firearm

Overall, protection against crime, for hunting, and for target shooting were the most common reasons people recently bought a gun, with no significant differences between people with and without depression.

But people with depression were more likely be motivated by concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic or for protection against someone they know, Perlis says.

“This speaks to the level of distress some U.S. adults are feeling — and the important point that, for some depressed people, the most dangerous person in their lives is someone they know.”

The 24,770 responses came from all 50 states between April 1 and July 7, 2021, as part of the COVID States Project. The average age of those polled was 38, and 66% were women. The majority were white, 71%; 11% were Black, 7% were Hispanic, 6% were Asian, and the remainder self-identified as “other.”

Among all responses, 28% reported moderate or greater depressive symptoms.

Among people with depression, those who owned firearms were significantly more likely to be younger, male, and white. This group also was more likely to have a higher income, live in a rural area, live in the South, and to identify as Republicans.

Knowing that gun ownership may raise the risk of suicide in certain groups of people may help health care workers tailor their messages, outreach, and interventions, the authors wrote.

Talk to Your Doctor

“There are large numbers of adults in the U.S. with not one but two major risk factors for suicide, and the number of people with depression who own firearms appears likely to increase,” Perlis says.

Your doctor might ask you about both depression and whether you own a firearm.

Your doctor might also ask about these things during an overall home safety check, Eric D. Caine, MD, of the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, says in a commentary in JAMA Network Open.

“Many clinicians when screening for domestic violence inquire routinely at the beginning of appointments whether home is a safe place,” he says. “Why not conduct a routine, universal home safety check?”

Doctors or nurses could ask about smoke alarms, stored medications and cabinet safety locks for children, family violence, drug misuse by family members, slippery rugs, and guns at the same time, he notes.

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