The findings, published in the American Journal of Public Health Association Thursday, come as government officials put special stress on the benefits of gun owners locking up their firearms to prevent shootings.

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Of households with guns in Washington, almost two-thirds keep the firearms lying around, possibly loaded, instead of locking them in a secure place — a problem University of Washington researchers say is helping drive the state’s suicide epidemic.

The local academics used survey data about gun ownership from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to compile a study, released widely Thursday, that aims to emphasize the importance of securing firearms properly since it can prevent suicidal people from getting access to the weapons.

The findings come as government officials, specifically in Seattle and King County, stress the benefits of gun owners storing firearms safely through public safety campaigns and talks of legislation requiring them to do so.

Warning signs of suicide

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or have concerns about someone else who may be, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You will be routed to a local crisis center where professionals can talk you through a risk assessment and provide resources in your community. The more of the signs below that a person shows, the greater the risk of suicide.
  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings
Source: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

According to the study, about 34 percent of people in Washington who took a 2016 telephone survey through the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System said they lived with a firearm in their home. Of that number, a little more than one-third reported the guns were locked properly and unloaded.

That same year, firearms were the leading method of suicide for men and the second-leading method for women across the state, the researchers said.

“Access to lethal means is part of what’s fueling suicides,” said lead author Erin Morgan, of the university’s Department of Epidemiology, in a news release.

Beyond self-inflicted deaths, nearly three-quarters of King County’s homicide victims last year — totaling 74 — died as a result of gun violence, the same ratio as the previous year, when 66 people died from homicide, according to a Seattle Times database with information compiled from police, court records, prosecutors and the King County Medical Examiner’s Office.

In March, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Councilmember M. Lorena González said to curb the number of shootings in Seattle, they want to require gun owners to lock up firearms left in their homes and vehicles, as well as increase penalties for people who fail to report lost and stolen guns.

State law prohibits Washington cities from regulating guns, and the mayor said at that time she expects legislation with the changes to be challenged in court. She said, though, she’s confident the city would prevail because the legislation wouldn’t stop anyone from buying, carrying or transporting a gun.

A statement from Durkan’s office Thursday says she is committed to following through and continues to meet with people, ranging from shooting victims to gun owners, “to find the right balance of safety and protection for the Seattle community.”

She plans to finalize legislation, and then forward it to the City Council, in coming weeks.

To support the push, the mayor’s office said an estimated 150,000 adults in King County reported keeping a firearm unlocked in 2015.

Places in eastern King County  — such as Black Diamond, Enumclaw, Snoqualmie, North Bend, Skykomish, Covington, Newcastle and Maple Valley  — have the highest concentration of households with guns, an online interactive map by the department of Public Health — Seattle & King County shows.

About 42 percent of homes in those areas have firearms, compared to roughly 13 percent in central Seattle, the map shows.

King County has a program that aims to educates gun owners about safe storage and connect them with storage-device discounts, called “LOK-IT-UP”. Check the department’s website for more information.