AURORA | One in five high school students in Colorado have easy access to a handgun, according to a new study from the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
“We had our eye on firearm access because it’s a leading cause of death for teenagers,” said Dr. Ashley Brooks-Russell, assistant professor in the School of Public Health and lead author of the study, which was published in March in the Journal of Pediatrics. “If you look at what injures and kills teenagers, it’s suicide, homicide and motor vehicle crashes, and of those three causes, guns contribute to two of them.”
Brooks-Russell directs the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, a biannual survey that measures the health and well-being of the state’s young people along different metrics.
The team that designs the survey decided to include a question about firearms for the first time in the 2019 survey, Brooks-Russell told the Sentinel.
The team was concerned about backlash from politicians or parent groups because of how politicized an issue firearm use has become, she said, but still felt that it was important to ask.
Instead of asking specifically whether there was a gun in the home or how guns around them were stored, the survey asked students how easy it would be to get a handgun if they wanted one. Of respondents, 20% said it would be “very easy” or “sort of easy.”
Since the survey is self-reported, it’s hard to measure how accurate students’ perceptions of firearm access are, Brooks-Russell said. The study found that students who said they felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks, had previously attempted suicide or who had been in a physical fight in the past 12 months were “significantly more likely” to report easy access to a handgun, according to a the study.
“It does suggest to me that having a reason or being in a mindset where you could think about wanting a gun, either for self-defense or self-harm, that might influence your perception of how easy it is,” she said.
The study also found that male students, older students and students in rural areas were more likely to report easy gun access. A significantly high percent of transgender students reported easy access, and American Indian, multiracial and white students were much more likely to report easy access to guns than Hispanic, Black or Asian American students.
It’s unclear whether Colorado has a higher rate of youth access to guns than other states, due to a shortage of data. Ultimately, Brooks-Russell said that the findings point toward a need for more research into the subject.
“We need to be asking a lot more questions,” she said. “The reason it’s taken us so long is the taboo about speaking about these things and I think that’s unfortunate.”
The survey team didn’t experience any community pushback about the question like they feared, Brooks-Russell said.
“I think there’s some appreciation that this is a problem,” she said.
The next survey will take place this fall, the team is still formulating what questions will be asked.
Youth suicide is a prevalent problem in Colorado, and has been a longtime subject of concern. A 2021 report from the Colorado Health Institute analyzing Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data found that suicide rates among 15-19 year olds have risen over the past 10 years, and in 2019 were at 21 deaths per 100,000 teens, an all-time high.
Having access to a firearm is a significant risk factor for fatal suicide attempts. According to “Means Matter,” a project from the Harvard School of Public Health analyzing suicide, there are more suicides in states with high gun ownership.
Guns are an extremely lethal means of suicide — about 85% of suicide by gunshot attempts are fatal, according to Means Matter, over 15% more fatal than the second more dangerous method. Other methods often fail or are slow enough to give people the opportunity to reconsider partway through.
According to Means Matter, a National Violent Injury Statistical System study found that in gun suicides among people ages 17 and under, 82% used a gun owned by a family member. About two thirds of the firearms had been stored unlocked.
A bill going through the Colorado state legislature, the Safe Storage of Firearms bill, would require firearms to be securely stored when not in use and require gun dealers in the state to provide a locking device with each firearm during a sale. The bill was passed through the House in March and is currently under consideration in the state Senate. Senate Judiciary Committee on April 1.
A fiscal note attached to the bill states that according to Colorado’s violent death reporting system, 312 people below age 20 died in gun suicides between 2009 and 2019.
On the floor of the House, bill cosponsor Rep. Monica Duran said that the 14 states with similar laws have seen an 11% decrease in gun suicides among adolescents after passing safe gun storage legislation.
“Preventing teenagers from accessing a firearm when they are at risk of suicide could hold off action long enough to save their life,” she said.