Background: There continues to be considerable controversy over whether ownership of a handgun increases or decreases the risk of violent death.
Methods: We conducted a population-based cohort study to compare mortality among 238,292 persons who purchased a handgun in California in 1991 with that in the general adult population of the state. The observation period began with the date of handgun purchase (15 days after the purchase application) and ended on December 31, 1996. The standardized mortality ratio (the ratio of the number of deaths among handgun purchasers to the number expected on the basis of age- and sex-specific rates among adults in California) was the principal outcome measure.
Results: In the first year after the purchase of a handgun, suicide was the leading cause of death among handgun purchasers, accounting for 24.5 percent of all deaths and 51.9 percent of deaths among women 21 to 44 years old. The increased risk of suicide by any method among handgun purchasers (standardized mortality ratio, 4.31) was attributable entirely to an excess risk of suicide with a firearm (standardized mortality ratio, 7.12). In the first week after the purchase of a handgun, the rate of suicide by means of firearms among purchasers (644 per 100,000 person-years) was 57 times as high as the adjusted rate in the general population. Mortality from all causes during the first year after the purchase of a handgun was greater than expected for women (standardized mortality ratio, 1.09), and the entire increase was attributable to the excess number of suicides by means of a firearm. As compared with the general population, handgun purchasers remained at increased risk for suicide by firearm over the study period of up to six years, and the excess risk among women in this cohort (standardized mortality ratio, 15.50) remained greater than that among men (standardized mortality ratio, 3.23). The risk of death by homicide with a firearm was elevated among women (standardized mortality ratio at one year, 2.20; at six years, 2.01) but low among men (standardized mortality ratio at one year, 0.84; at six years, 0.79).
Conclusions: The purchase of a handgun is associated with a substantial increase in the risk of suicide by firearm and by any method; the increase in the risk of suicide by firearm is apparent within a week after the purchase of a handgun. The magnitude of the increase and the relation between handgun purchase and the risk of death by homicide differ between men and women.