Guns and your health

Wynne Armand, MD
Wynne Armand, MD, Contributing Editor

People choose to own guns for several reasons: hunting, target shooting, collecting… The number one reason now is for protection.

As physicians, we too care about your protection. Our mission is to treat disease, promote quality of life, and prevent injury and death. We discuss matters of health and safety in a confidential, non-judgmental fashion. We ask about depression, domestic violence, and drugs. We make recommendations about practicing safe sex and wearing seatbelts. But some feel that physicians should not talk about guns. In fact, Florida has passed a law limiting such discussion. But guns do affect health and safety. In the United States, the number of deaths from guns continues to climb (now at roughly 33,000 per year, far more than any other developed country per capita) and is expected to surpass motor vehicle deaths for 2015. It is the second leading cause of death in children.

Death by association

Guns have been used successfully in self-defense. But the reality is that owning a gun is associated with an increased risk of family injury or death. Unintentional shootings and attempted or completed suicides far outweigh the use of guns in self-defense.

In fact, the more households that have guns within a particular state, the more gun deaths there are — even after adjusting for crime, unemployment, urbanization, alcohol, and poverty.

And what is intended to protect can be turned into a threat. In one review of unauthorized entry into homes, 1.5% of cases reported using a gun to defend themselves, but twice as many reported losing their gun to the intruder. What’s more, the majority of homicides (54%) are committed by someone known to the victim and an additional 25% were by family, mostly with guns. When there is access to guns in a household, the risk of a woman dying due to domestic violence increases fivefold.


As gun ownership has increased, so has the number of suicides. Two-thirds of gun deaths are from suicides. Yet gun owners do not have more mental health issues, depression, or suicidal thoughts than those who do not own guns. The issue is the easier access. Nobody thinks it can happen to them or their loved ones, but many suicide attempts are unexpected and made on impulse.

Harm to children

Children also use guns to commit suicide; 82% of these suicides involve guns at home, mostly stored unlocked. When children attempt suicide, 90% are successful when guns are used, as compared with 5% with other means. It is hard to prevent because young people often act impulsively and there may be no early warning signs, such as suicidal thoughts.

Children are often shot accidentally by a friend or sibling. We think we know our children — but do not underestimate the secrets they keep. One study found that parents often incorrectly believed their children had never handled their guns. One-third of the children answered otherwise.

Choose wisely

Guns are your right and your choice. But know that though guns can protect, the odds are higher that they will hurt those they intend to save. Education and compromise can help us work toward acceptable ways to stem the rising tide of gun-related deaths. That’s why I will talk to my patients about gun safety.

What can you do?

  • If you are contemplating whether to keep a gun, consider the real risks to you and your family. If there is a history of domestic violence, or if someone in the household has depression, consider removing any guns.
  • If you choose to keep a gun, keep it locked away. Though this won’t eliminate all risk, locked-away guns will likely be less subject to theft and curious children. The Bureau of Justice estimates that 1.4 million guns were stolen between 2005 and 2010, mainly from household burglaries.
  • If you decide to keep a gun, store it unloaded, with the key and ammunition separate. Explore more advanced technology like storage locks with keyless fingerprint scans and newer gun safety features.
  • Before your child goes on a playdate, consider asking the parents if they have a gun and whether it’s stored safely. This may be hard at first. One day, it might get as easy as asking about food allergies and car seats for carpooling.
  • Talk to your children about what to do if they find a gun, or if their friend wants to show them a gun. Advise them, “Don’t touch the gun, leave the area immediately, and talk to an adult.”
  • Support firearm injury research so that we can better understand the problem and find solutions. The CDC firearm injury prevention research came to a halt after funding was barred for anything interpreted as promoting stricter gun laws.


Related Information: Harvard Health Letter


  1. John & Kathleen Piazza

    I wish I had the time to respond to your incomplete and biased article. We welcome the opportunity to take personal responsibility, and wish to remind you of one night not so long ago in 1938. The government had exercised gun confiscation, and then terrorized the protectionless minority with death, injury, and property theft & damage.
    It was called Krystallnacht because of all the glass of the defenseless that was broken.
    Do not remove our right to protect ourselves because somebody who wants to terminate their life by suicide used a firearm.
    How many times in the last year have we seen abusive , out of control police murder the defenseless, usually with firearms?
    We think you should adhere to health, and not social issues where you have some competency. Private firearms ownership could have stopped or mitigated the tremendous loss of life in the Ukraine prior to WWII, and, in China, from the time of the invaison by the Japanese to the great famine of the late 50s-early 60s, all caused by abusive governments toward their own citizens.

  2. Regula Pepi

    I don’t believe that a gun in and of itself is a health hazard. But it is a potential hazard unless the household is educated with respect to guns and engages regularly in target practice and save handling practices. The recent uptick in gun purchases has been accompanied by quite a bit of hysteria and bluster. Our local gun club had a few hairy occurrences after the last election; lights shot out, firearms laying around, scary behavior on the shooting line and general idiocy frightening the old-timers. An introductory course for new members was instituted and we have not heard any horror stories lately. Chances are many of the new gun owners stopped practicing but the guns are still in their homes.

  3. Linda Alcott Maples

    I would like everyone to consider all the deaths that happen in a hospital to a lot of those who go in for routine procedures. And because of unclean areas are exposed to germs that can cause death.
    Address this area of health, and we will all be better for it.
    I think health magazines/newsletters should stick to basic health and leave gun control to our Congress and the 2nd Amendment!!
    Our family doctor is a big advocate of gun rights.

  4. Dianne

    As an Australian, I would never visit America. Your general attitude toward guns is frightening. I might never make it back home.

  5. Alan ostner

    Better fix the typo:

    “But guns do affect health and safety. In the United States, the number of deaths from guns continues to climb (now at roughly 33,00 per year, far more than any other developed country per capita) and is expected to surpass motor vehicle deaths for 2015. It is the second leading cause of death in children.”

    33,000 is the number.

    Great post! Guns are absolutely a health risk. Thanks for standing up for health.

  6. Max

    Thanks for the interesting stats. I have a gun at home, easily accessible. I have to ponder what you say.

  7. Harold Hunt

    I find your article extremely biased and misleading. If you eliminate the four most crime ridden cities of Detroit, Chicago, New York and New Orleans, all of which have extreme tight gun control laws, the United States is fifth from the bottom of countries in gun violence.

  8. David Deuel

    I appreciate the attempt at being unbiased, but I believe that Dr Armand could do a little better job at being neutral if our health and safety is truly her motivation.

  9. Ruth Burke

    I really object to this article/blog Harvard, especially in such a highly charged political environment. What you have stated is frankly, outrageously biased. Makes me think of the book A Statistician Reads the Newspaper – you can turn any statistic into something that supports your view if you A) leave out the opposing views and statistics and B) flaunt statistical numbers without the related data that would show your actual numbers are ridiculously small. This is beneath you and sounds like you’re using a good thing as just another bully pulpit and you did it by slipping it in between the things we’re here to read. Not cool guys.

  10. Ian

    That graph you linked to from Vox is very misleading because they include suicides. The association completely disappears if you only count homicides:

  11. Victor

    Which developed country has at least half the population of the US?

  12. Greg

    Japan has a suicide rate 20x higher than the US and literally NO access to guns whatsoever. I find this entire “blog post” to be quite misleading, if not completely biased. You say that more people are victims of their own gun, than actually using them for protection?

    It’s estimated that guns are used 2.5 million times PER year to stop violent crimes from occurring. That fact in itself dwarfs all the numbers of “gun deaths.” (2/3rds of which are suicide.)

    • Barry

      The suicide rate comparison you stated above is incorrect. According to the World Health Organization (2012) Japan’s suicide rate per 100,000 people was 18.5 and the rate in the USA was 12.1, clearly not 20x higher. Japan’s higher rate has nothing to do with this discussion as Dr. Armand is only stating the fact that, when guns are accessible, suicide attempts are more successful. Without access to unlocked and loaded firearms more suicide attempts would fail in the USA and the rate would be even lower (maybe then it would be 20x lower than in Japan).

      The second statistic of 2.5M violent crimes stopped per year by gun owners is from Dr. Gary Klecks’ “study” which is actually an estimate based on a survey of 222 participants. This estimate is a gross overstatement (orders of magnitude) of all credible available information which is discussed in detail, and in consideration of the gun lobby’s positions, in the following link;

      I hope that you check the suicide rate numbers I provided and read the entire article at the link above. You may find that it is not Dr. Armand who is misleading you but rather the gun lobby. There are good reasons to own guns, and you have the right to do so, but the belief that having guns makes you or your family safer is not based in fact. Please take all possible precautions to stay safe and protect the safety of others.