The study examined 14 years of suicide data, from the law’s passage through 2013. Though the researchers avoid calling their findings definitive, the results have encouraged advocates of a ballot initiative in Washington state that is likely to pass in November, according to polling, as well legislators elsewhere.
Connecticut’s law “was enacted out of concern for violence against other people, but as it has been used, most of time it has been because of suicide concerns,” Swanson said. He called his paper a “kind of quasi-experiment as a way for policymakers think about” gun-violence restraining orders.
Research shows that for people considering ending their own life, access to guns matters. More than half of all suicides in the U.S. are carried out with a firearm, even though guns account for a small minority of attempts. Bullets are exceptionally lethal: In 2014, about 87 percent of gun suicide attempts were fatal, compared to just three percent of attempts by drug overdoses, according to an analysis of Centers for Disease Control data.
Because suicide is often an impulsive decision, removing firearms from the immediate vicinity of a potential victim can reduce deaths. States with lower gun ownership rates have substantially lower suicide rates.
The Connecticut law allows police to confiscate guns for up to one year if a judge issues a “risk warrant”—a civil court action that does not create a criminal record—based on a law enforcement affidavit showing probable cause that someone will harm himself or others. Judges must consider recent threats, or acts of violence, and may weigh other factors, like drug and alcohol abuse. Persons subject to these gun-violence prevention orders are also prohibited from further possessing firearms.
In its first eight years, the Connecticut law generated fewer than 10 such warrants per year. But it was used more widely after the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech. The shooter at the university should not have been able to possess a gun due to a history of mental illness.
Through 2013, Connecticut courts issued 762 gun-violence prevention warrants in the state. Ninety-two percent of subjects were men, who are about three times more likely than women to take their own lives. Sixty-one percent of warrants affected people considered to be a risk to themselves; 32 percent were deemed to pose risk to others. (This correlates to national gun violence numbers: About two-thirds of the 33,000 annual deaths are suicides, and one-third are homicides).
Researchers determined 21 of the subjects of orders later committed suicide; six of them used guns to do so. That’s an extremely high suicide rate—40 times the national average. But Swanson said those results actually suggest the law effectively targets high-risk people—without the initial seizures, the rate would have been higher.