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The number of homicides and suicides involving firearms has fallen dramatically in Austria since gun control laws were tightened in 1997, concludes a study in the British Journal of Psychiatry (2007;191:253-7).
In 1997 the Austrian government tightened its legislation on firearms in line with a European Council directive on controlling the acquisition and possession of weapons.
The study also found that the fall in the number of firearm related suicides was not associated with an increase in the number of suicides in which other methods were used.
A total of 1392 people, or 17 in 100000, committed suicide in Austria in 2005, the lowest number since 1986.
The researchers found that the percentage of people in Austria who used guns to commit suicide rose significantly between 1985 and 1997, even though the number of suicides overall declined steadily. In 1985 the overall suicide rate (by all causes) was 27.6 per 100000, whereas in 2005 it was 16.7 per 100000.
Before the more restrictive gun legislation was introduced the mean number of gun related suicides was 3.96 per 100000 people. Afterwards this number fell among men and women aged between 20 and 64 years and among men aged 65 or more. The number fell to a low of 2.67 per 100000 in 2005.
Even after factors that increase the risk of suicide—such as unemployment and alcohol consumption—were taken into account the decrease remained significant.
The study recommends that countries with a high number of gun related suicides should tighten gun legislation as part of their national suicide prevention strategies.
Elizabeth Jandl-Jager, a professor of sociology at Vienna University, said that the study showed the importance of reducing gun ownership in other countries.
“If the weapon isn't there there's no possibility of using it,” she said. “There are some traumatic and dramatic events when even quite stable people might lose control, and that is when it is important to make sure there are no firearms about.”
She said that the legislation in Austria was effective because it was backed up by effective action. Police, for example, made regular spot checks to ensure that firearms in homes were kept locked away. The introduction of psychological screening of people applying for firearms licences had also helped reduce gun violence, she said.