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High firearm ownership among U.S. law enforcement officers linked to increased risk of suicidal thoughts, Rutgers study reveals

In a study published in the journal Injury Prevention, researchers from Rutgers University have uncovered suicidal ideation pattens linked to the prevalence of firearm ownership and storage practices among law enforcement officers in the United States.

The study suggests that these officers, who already face armed violence in their line of duty, are more likely to have suicidal thoughts due to their high rates of firearm ownership and inadequate secure storage measures.

The study, which scrutinised data from 369 law enforcement officers across the country, reviewed firearm ownership, storage practices, suicide risk, and demographic profiles. The results reveal a concerning trend that demands greater attention.

Key Findings:

  • High Firearm Ownership: The study found that 70.5 percent of law enforcement officers reported owning firearms, with handguns being the most common type of firearm owned (79.7 percent), followed by shotguns (61.1 percent) and rifles (57.5 percent). Additionally, a significant majority (78.9 percent) owned more than one type of firearm.
  • Insecure Firearm Storage: data emerged regarding the secure storage of these firearms. Only 39.8 percent reported using gun safes, while 31.2 percent relied on locking devices like trigger or cable locks. These findings indicate that many law enforcement officers do not engage in safe firearm storage practices.
  • Suicidal Thoughts: Of note, 57.6 percent of the study’s participants admitted to having lifetime thoughts of suicide. Furthermore, the research suggests a direct correlation between these thoughts and firearm ownership. Those who reported lifetime thoughts of suicide were more likely to own firearms, raising concerns about easy access to lethal means during moments of crisis.

Allison Bond, a clinical psychology doctoral candidate with the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers and the first author of the study, expressed her concerns, stating, “Historically, law enforcement officers have had higher rates of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. We found that not only are they experiencing high rates of suicidal thoughts, but those who have had suicidal thoughts are more likely to own firearms, and are often not engaging in secure storage. This is concerning because access to a firearm increases the risk for several types of firearm-related injuries and death, including suicide; and this risk is even higher when a firearm is not stored securely. We need to work with law enforcement officers to determine ways to increase secure storage.”

Previous research has already indicated that law enforcement officers experience higher rates of suicidal thoughts and behaviors compared to the general population. What makes this study particularly alarming is that a substantial proportion of their suicide deaths result from firearm use.

Michael Anestis, executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center and an associate professor at Rutgers School of Public Health, who served as an author of the study, emphasised the urgency of the issue. “If law enforcement officers experiencing suicidal thoughts are more likely to have quick access to an unsecured firearm, there is a greater risk that, in their worst moment, they will reach for and use by far the most lethal method for suicide,” he warned. “We do not always know when an officer is suffering from suicidal thoughts, so we need to work with that community to foster a general tendency to store firearms securely by default so that, if they one day find themselves thinking about suicide, it will be more difficult for them to make a deadly decision in response to those thoughts.”

In 2022, a study by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that police officers and firefighters were more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty – a similar finding the group concluded in a 2018 study.

The Rutger University findings shed light on a pressing issue within the law enforcement community and underscore the need for immediate action to address firearm ownership and storage practices among officers to reduce the risk of suicide.