July 11, 2022
Importance Evidence suggests that limiting access to firearms among individuals at high risk of suicide can be an effective means of suicide prevention, yet accurately identifying those at risk to intervene remains a key challenge. Firearm purchasing records may offer a large-scale and objective data source for the development of tools to predict firearm suicide risk.Objective To test whether a statewide database of handgun transaction records, coupled with machine learning techniques, can be used to forecast firearm suicide risk.Design, Setting, and Participants This prognostic study used the California database of 4 976 391 handgun transaction records from 1 951 006 individuals from January 1, 1996, to October 6, 2015. Transaction-level random forest classification was implemented to predict firearm suicide risk, and the relative predictive power of features in the algorithm was estimated via permutation importance. Analyses were performed from December 1, 2020, to May 19, 2022.Main Outcomes and Measures The main outcome was firearm suicide within 1 year of a firearm transaction, derived from California death records (1996-2016). With the use of California's Dealer's Records of Sale (1996-2015), 41 handgun, transaction, purchaser, and community-level predictor variables were generated.Results There are a total of 4 976 391 transactions in the California's Dealer's Record of Sale database representing 1 951 006 individuals (1 525 754 men [78.2% of individuals]; mean [SD] age, 43.4 [13.9] years). Firearm suicide within 1 year occurred in 0.07% of handgun transactions (3278 transactions among 2614 individuals). A total of 38.6% of observed firearm suicides were among transactions classified in the highest-risk ventile (379 of 983 transactions), with 95% specificity. Among the small number of transactions with a random forest score above 0.95, more than two-thirds (24 of 35 [68.6%]) were associated with a purchaser who died by firearm suicide within 1 year. Important features included known risk factors, such as older age at first purchase, and previously unreported predictors, including distance to firearms dealer and month of purchase.Conclusions and Relevance This prognostic study presented the first large-scale machine learning analysis of individual-level handgun transaction records. The results suggested the potential utility of such records in identifying high-risk individuals to aid suicide prevention efforts. It also identified handgun, individual, and community characteristics that have strong predictive relationships with firearm suicide and may warrant further study.