Lethal Impulse

Teen suicide rates are dropping nationwide. But they are dropping fastest in the states with laws aimed at restricting children's access to firearms.

Eighteen states have enacted child-access prevention laws, or CAP laws, that hold parents criminally liable if their teens have unrestricted access to firearms in the home.

Some states hold parents accountable only if children use guns from their homes to commit crimes, while other states' laws are more restrictive. Some states require restrictions until children are 18; others apply only until children reach 14.

But as a group, these states have seen more progress in reducing teen suicide than states such as Nebraska that do not have CAP laws.

The World-Herald compared two periods -- 1994 to 1998 and 1999 to 2002 -- and found that:

The overall suicide rate among youths ages 10 to 19 dropped 22 percent in CAP law states compared with 16 percent in states without CAP laws. Nebraska dropped only 5 percent.

The rate of teen suicides involving firearms decreased 38 percent in CAP law states compared with a 31 percent drop in the states without CAP laws. Nebraska's drop: just 19 percent.

The role of CAP laws also was studied recently by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. After factoring out differences between the CAP and the non-CAP states, such as poverty rates and racial makeup, the researchers found the CAP states made more progress.

The study found that the laws particularly reduced suicides among teens ages 14 to 17.

Other gun restrictions -- such as minimum age for purchase laws -- did not have an impact on suicide rates, said Dr. Daniel Webster. He was the lead researcher of the Hopkins study, published last August in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Most importantly, the rates of teen suicide by means other than guns did not increase in the CAP states, Webster said. That addressed the concern that suicidal teens will simply find another way if guns aren't available.

Gun cap laws don't follow tradition in terms of gun control politics. New York has no child access law, but otherwise it has strong gun control laws. Texas is more of a pro-gun state, and yet it has a child access law.

CAP laws aren't a cure-all. Iowa has one, but its rate of firearm-related suicides is only slightly lower than Nebraska's.

Although there is no CAP law in Nebraska, the state is using a federal grant to hand out trigger locks to gun owners who ask for them.

Webster said it is important to recognize the efforts in states such as Nebraska, although he believes CAP laws ought to be considered in every state.

Police aren't going to do random checks for compliance, so the effect of CAP laws is more psychological.

"There is an extremely low likelihood that any gun-owning parent that doesn't abide by the law is going to get caught, " Webster said. "For a law like this to work, it's publicity and it's a statement of social norms."


Suicide rates dropping

Average annual rates in 1999-02 compared with 1994-98, Ages 10 to 19.

Changes in rates

U.S.: -19.2
Neb.: -4.6
Iowa: -7.5

SOURCE: Study of mortality data from the national Centers of Disease Control and Prevention