Raising legal age for handgun sales to 21 could prevent hundreds of teen suicides

BOSTON — Suicide is among the leading causes of death in the United States, especially among teens. Firearms incidents tragically account for more than half of these deaths. Thirty-three states in America allow people as young as 18 to buy handguns. New research claims, if all 50 states change their age limit on firearm sales to 21, hundreds of teen suicides could be prevented.

To better understand how legal access to handguns among teens relates to teen suicide rates, researchers at Boston University School of Public Health examined suicide data for over 500 million “person years.” These are the number of people included in the study, multiplied by the number of years of follow-up. The data looks at people between 13 and 20 years old across the country from 2001 to 2017.

The link between guns and teen suicides

The study finds states which allow gun sales to people 18 or older have higher rates of suicide among 18- to 20-year-olds. Researchers note there are an average of 344 more deaths in these areas. States which prevent firearm sales to people under 21 have an 18-percent drop in suicides.

When comparing how suicide rates shift before and after changes in handgun laws, the Boston team discovered suicide rates rose in two states that lowered the age limit — Missouri and South Carolina. There is no change however in states that now have a higher age limit, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Researchers suggest the lack of change in suicide rates for those two states may be due to higher levels of gun ownership in West Virginia and Wyoming. They contend that teens there may have greater access to handguns in their homes regardless of whether they are able to legally purchase one on their own.

Dangers at home

The study adds, although age limits on gun sales will likely save lives, these limits won’t protect teens who live in homes with firearms. The team points out that one in three homes with children in the U.S. has a firearm inside. In half of these homes, the firearms are not locked in a secure location.

Despite the challenges surrounding guns in American homes, the study believes the solution starts with lawmakers limiting teen access. Raising the age limit to 21 “will likely prevent at least some suicides in young people,” the study authors say in a media release.

The study is published in The BMJ.

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