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More People with Depression Bought Guns for the First Time During the Pandemic

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We found it concerning that depression seemed to prompt more first-time gun buying. We presume this stems from increased anxiety and a diffuse sense of threat that comes with that anxiety.”

James Druckman
IPR political scientist

gun store

For years research has shown that owning a gun increases the risk of suicide—a prospect that has only been amplified with the rise in gun ownership during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In one of the largest studies of its kind to date, IPR political scientist James Druckman, IPR graduate research assistant Jennifer Lin, and their colleagues find that around one-third of people who report major symptoms of depression either currently own a gun or plan to buy one. Their results, published in JAMA Network Open, shed light on the connection between owning a gun and depression—and how the pandemic has exacerbated it.

“There has been a tremendous spike in gun sales during the pandemic,” Druckman said, noting that in 2020, a record-breaking 17 million Americans purchased at least one firearm. “And there was a sixfold or so increase in depression. We thus wanted to explore if there was a relationship.”

The study, conducted by scholars from Northwestern, Harvard, Rutgers, and Northeastern universities, examines survey data collected in two waves from April–May and June–July 2021, as part of the COVID States Project. The researchers surveyed 24,770 individuals, and 28% reported depressive symptoms. Of those with depression, 31% reported that they owned a firearm, of whom 36% indicated that they had purchased it within the past year.

As part of the survey, respondents were asked to complete a nine-item questionnaire on depressive symptoms and were asked if they currently owned a gun and whether they had purchased one during the pandemic.

When asked why they bought a gun, first-time gun buyers said they did it for protection, target shooting, and hunting. Those with depression, however, were more likely to report purchasing a firearm because of COVID-19 concerns and to protect themselves from someone they knew. Individuals who were depressed were also more likely to say they planned to purchase a firearm within the next 18 months.

“We found it concerning that depression seemed to prompt more first-time gun buying,” Druckman said. “We presume this stems from increased anxiety and a diffuse sense of threat that comes with that anxiety.”

The researchers also discovered that characteristics associated with firearm ownership, such as being younger, male, White, higher earners, and Republican, as well as living in a rural area or in the South, are similar to those of gun owners who reported depressive symptoms.

Druckman and his colleagues suggest that questioning patients about their mental health and gun ownership during visits to the doctor could be one way to screen for risk of suicide, although implementing this kind of screening could be challenging because gun owners might not admit they own one.

“It is important to monitor the mental health of gun owners given the relationship between suicide risk and gun ownership,” Druckman said. “Policies could incorporate some monitoring of mental health, but of course, the tricky part is to do this without stigmatizing or removing rights of individuals based on their health status.”

Although suicide rates did not increase during the pandemic, depression did rise in 2020 and 2021, with isolation imposed by lockdowns and financial stressors cited as the top reasons for people’s elevated emotions. Druckman says even though there was not a direct connection between depression and suicide rates over the last two years, it’s still crucial to monitor gun owners’ mental health because gun owners might not be depressed when they purchase a gun, but they could develop symptoms later on.

“More generally, there tends to be a relationship between gun ownership and suicide and there are other risks of gun ownership such as accidents and crimes,” he said.

James Druckman is the Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science and IPR associate director and fellow. Jennifer Lin is an IPR graduate research assistant and PhD student in political science.

Photo credit: iStock

Published: July 11, 2022.