Blog Gun Violence Initiative Behavioral/Mental Health

Beyond self-defense: Increasing firearm safety in the home

Written by Victoria Grace Assokom-Siakam, intern at the Center for Community Health Partnership and Research

An individual with a gun in their home is four times more likely to be a victim of that said firearm.1

Most individuals keep firearms in their homes for either sport, hobby or self-defense. Given that owning a firearm is a high health risk behavior, what can be done to mitigate accidental or purposeful taking of one’s life? To address this public health issue, some of today’s discourse on gun violence already advocates for increasing awareness among gun owners on best practices like keeping the gun unloaded, locked and stored. Yet, the trend of information that activists convey to gun owners differs from the content firearm instructors provide in trainings.

Researcher David Hemenway and his team followed firearm classes in Massachusetts, Connecticut and the Washington DC area. They found that roughly 90 percent of the instructors spoke on safely loading and unloading a gun, keeping fingers off of the trigger until the individual is ready to shoot as well as being aware of the target and what is behind it.2

Data credit: David Hemenway and team.

In emphasizing awareness of oneself and the surroundings, these practices mitigate the risks for an accidental discharge. This trend of addressing accidents, persists with the 50 to 75 percent of the instructors who cover gun maintenance.2 While keeping fingers off the trigger addresses awareness, operating a safety and attending to cartridge malfunctions deal with the mechanics of accidents. Within this group of instructors, they also recommended keeping guns unloaded and locked, which does align with our earlier discussion on the education efforts of gun violence activists.

Thus far in these firearm training classes, none of the instructors has provided guidance on modes of action if an individual wants to use a firearm for self-harm. The population that does speak on suicide prevention or domestic violence is in the minority. Only 10 percent of the training instructors mentioned these topics.2 Again, owning a firearm is a high-risk behavior and 60 percent of all firearm deaths are suicides.3 While keeping a gun unloaded and locked, as well as increased awareness of one’s surroundings, reduces the potential for self-harm, these practices alone do not offer an at-risk individual resources for addressing depression or conflict with a partner.

Ideally, suicide prevention and domestic violence would be more incorporated into firearm classes, but an additional difficulty exists in targeting firearm instruction. Only 3 out of 5 self-defense handgun owners receive formal training.4 Beyond incorporating suicide prevention into the curriculum for the formally trained population, how do we reach the remaining two thirds of gun owners without that structure for receiving information on mitigating these health risks?

In 2009, the New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition started the Gun Shop Project to engage gun shop and fire range owners in preventing suicide among their employees and customers. The Gun Shop project has not only partnered to increase awareness of resources like lifelines, but also to increase self-care practices and education on how to approach and support loved ones.

Right: the initial Suicide Prevention poster. Left: the final poster after shop owner input. (Photo Credit: Connect)

To address the 90 percent of guns already in the population, the NH Firearm Safety Coalition has also expanded their partnerships to shooting ranges.5

In 2015, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention launched Project 2025, partnering with the National Shooting Sport Foundation to reduce the annual suicide rate by 20 percent by 2025 in states like Missouri.6 While many states have adopted a gun shop project, certain states have yet to implement this type of program. If we apply this collaborative element to gun ownership, not only do we increase exposure to resources upon an individual’s first purchase, we also reduce the stigma surrounding gun violence and self-harm.


1Kurtzman, Laura. “Access to Guns Increases Risk of Suicide, Homicide.” UC San Francisco, 21 Jan. 2014,

2Hemenway, David, et al. “Firearms Training: What Is Actually Taught?” Injury Prevention, BMJ Publishing Group Ltd, 7 Oct. 2017,

3DeSilver, Drew. “Suicides Account for Most Gun Deaths.” Pew Research Center, 23 May 2013,

4Yablon, Alex. “4 Out of 10 Self-Defense Handgun Owners Have Received No Formal Firearms Training.” The Trace, 18 July 2017,

5“Suicide Prevention: A Role for Firearm Dealers and Ranges.” Connect, NAMI New Hampshire,

6AFSP. “Nation’s Largest Suicide Prevention Organization Launches Suicide Prevention and Firearm Pilot Program — AFSP.” AFSP, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 17 Aug. 2016,