It is pretty easy to get a gun these days without going through a
background check. A Connecticut law enacted in 1999 to allow police to temporarily
remove guns from potentially violent or suicidal people likely prevented
dozens of suicides, suggested a study by researchers at Duke and
Yale universities and the University of Connecticut.
In their review of 762 gun-removal cases, the authors calculate that
for every 10 to 20 instances of temporary gun seizures, one suicide was
‘A Connecticut law enacted in 1999 to allow police to temporarily remove guns from potentially violent or suicidal people likely prevented dozens of suicides.’
The findings come as eight other states are exploring similar
measures. Voters in Washington state passed a nearly identical law in
the most recent election, and it will go into effect next month.
"Ten to 20 gun removals to save one life - is that high or is that low?" said lead author,
professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke
University School of Medicine. "That may be for the policy makers to
decide. But we'd like to put this information in the hands of the policy
makers so they know what's hanging in the balance of risk and rights
when it comes to preventing gun violence."
In the study, available online and forthcoming in the journal Law and Contemporary Problems
researchers used court records, interviews, public health files, vital
records and other sources to track what happened in the lives of people
subject to temporary gun removal. The researchers applied U.S.
population-level data on suicides, suicide attempts and methods used to
estimate how many deaths were potentially averted.
The Connecticut law was drafted after a 1998 mass shooting at
offices for the state lottery. The bill allows officials to remove
firearms for up to a year from any person a court finds at high-risk of
violence or self-harm. Since then, Indiana and California have enacted
similar risk-based gun removal laws, which the researchers are also
The policy could help identify people who may be temporarily at
increased risk of violence but do not necessarily have a history of
violence, involuntary commitment, or a criminal record that would raise
flags through point-of-sale background checks, Swanson said.
Swanson said, "That's why this kind of risk-based
temporary gun removal could be important. It doesn't depend on just
stopping someone from buying a new gun. If they already have 10 at home,
that might not do much good."
The Connecticut measure was driven by concerns about distraught or
disgruntled people committing violence against others, such as in a mass
shooting, Swanson said. But the law is more often used by family
members and law enforcement troubled by people who might harm
themselves. Police must obtain a civil warrant from a judge with
probable cause that the person is at risk of harming themselves or
others. A civil court hearing must be held within two weeks to decide
whether to return the guns to the owner, or hold the guns for up to a
Of the 762 instances of temporary gun seizures, 95% of the
people were male with an average age of 47. An average of seven firearms
were sequestered per case. Most of the people were not involved in the
criminal justice system; 88 percent had no arrests leading to a criminal
conviction in the year before or the year after their firearms were
temporarily removed, according to the study.
Just 12% of the people whose guns were temporarily removed
were already receiving public mental health treatment in the year before
the guns were seized. A larger proportion (29%) were receiving
mental health treatment through the state's public system in the year
that followed their guns being seized, suggesting some subjects began
receiving mental health care as an indirect result of temporary gun
Among the 762 interventions, 21 of the people involved ended up
committing suicide - a proportion 40 times higher than suicide rate
among the general population. 15 people used methods other than
firearms to kill themselves. Six people used guns to kill themselves.
All of the gun-related suicides occurred after the person was once again
eligible to buy a gun or reclaim weapons that had been held by
Although 90% of suicide attempts are survived, the results
are almost always fatal for those who use firearms, Swanson said.
"What if the guns had not been taken away, how many more people
would have died?" he said. "We don't know that for sure. But using
information that we have from other studies about the means used in
suicide in the U.S. population, and the connections between gun
ownership and suicide, we can estimate that the gun-removal policy in
Connecticut did save many lives. In effect, it offered a second chance
at life for people in deep despair, and even a path to recovery when
they got help as a result."
The study data comprises quantitative and qualitative information
from court records, interviews, public health files, vital records and
other sources, and has limitations, Swanson said. Researchers relied on
national and state data on suicide rates, causes of suicide death, gun
ownership and rates of known suicide attempts to estimate the number of
guns that need to be seized to prevent one suicide. The findings are
also based solely on one state; Swanson and other researchers in the
field are tracking similar laws in other states to gain additional
insights, he said.