Duke researchers have recently discovered that an innovative Connecticut gun law might help reduce gun-related suicides.

The legislation allows police to temporarily remove guns from a person deemed to be at imminent risk of harming themselves or others. Looking at 762 Connecticut residents whose guns were removed between 1999 and 2013, researchers from Duke and several other peer institutions studied the law's actual effectiveness.

"We got interested in studying Connecticut because it was the first law of its kind, it was the pioneering law that implemented this civil court action with a public safety purpose," said lead author Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences. "Other states were interested in it but were looking to some evidence for whether this works." 

When guns are involved in mental health crises, the likelihood of a lethal outcome increases, Swanson said. In recent years, this has been a hotbed for debates about gun policy—especially after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 and the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. 

The Connecticut law required notice of all gun seizures be given to the state mental health authority, which meant researchers had faxes of the reports in order to construct a database. 

“Connecticut is an interesting place to study because of its innovative and fairly progressive mental health system and also because of the availability of data there,” Swanson said.

Forty-nine percent of gun removal cases were initially reported to the police by an acquaintance, of which 41 percent came from family members and eight percent came from employers and clinicians. The other 51 percent were reported by people who did not know the person concerned.

Threats of suicide or self-injury were reported in 61 percent of the cases, and the study found that implementation of gun removal laws is in fact correlated with a reduced likelihood of suicide. The study highlights the potential of this policy to target specific individuals who can harm themselves or others but are not restricted by law from purchasing a firearm, Swanson said.

“Gun seizure laws can be effective without stigmatizing people with mental illness. The message is that anyone can find themselves in a tough spot in life, during which time their risk for suicide increases," wrote Michael Norko, associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University, in an email. "The law did not take guns away from people with mental illness; it temporarily removed guns from people at imminent (and hopefully temporary) high risk.”

Norko emphasized that the data can address concerns by gun rights activists, because the number of people who had guns seized was a small minority of the population. 

“The number of people affected by gun seizure represented about 0.07 percent of the total population in the state who possess firearms," he wrote. "That percentage describes the level of intrusion on 2nd Amendment rights, which can be balanced against the prevention of suicides—which we estimated at one prevented suicide for every 10-20 firearm seizure events.”