Banner by Daniel Walsh

Suicide and Guns: By the Numbers

by Daniel Walsh

Trigger warning: This article describes the issue of suicide and discusses certain methods of suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling, please contact the suicide hotline at 1(800)-273-8255.

Over the past decade, a national debate has erupted over the issue of gun violence in America. This follows a marked increase in the number of mass shootings and a resounding call for stricter gun control. In 2016 alone, there were more than 38,000 gun-related deaths in the United States. Of these, 11,000 were homicides while 23,000 were suicides. This means that for every gun-related homicide death, there are more than two gun-related suicides. The modern debate concerning gun control has placed such a heavy focus on mass shootings that it has overlooked tens of thousands of lives lost.

Suicide is not a new issue, nor is it one that is localized to the United States. However, while global suicide rates have decreased by nearly 29 percent since 2000, the United States has experienced a near 18 percent increase in this same time frame. The causes of this discrepancy are incredibly complex and cannot be simplified down to a single issue such as gun ownership or gun control, but it is important to look at these as a contributing factors.

Gun-related research has a complicated history in the United States; it has been and remains difficult to perform meaningful research in the world of gun-violence prevention. This can be attributed to a 1996 spending bill provision, the Dickey Amendment, which stated that, “… none of the funds made available in this title may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control.” Proposed by allies of the National Rifle Association in Congress, this amendment halted gun-related research that was being performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other government organizations. This exclusionary funding has resulted in minimal research and data on the subject of gun violence in the United States. Any progress made has been on a small scale by organizations not affiliated with the government.

However, partial legislative victories have been made in appealing this amendment, allowing new data to emerge. For example, there is a strong correlation between rates of gun ownership by state to rates of suicide, and an even stronger one when comparing rates of gun ownership by state to rates of suicide by firearm. Such high correlations indicate that policies aimed at decreasing access to firearms may not only decrease suicide by firearm but suicide overall.

Opponents of gun control legislation may cite suicide as a tragic inevitability. Some push the idea that restricting access to firearms will only drive those considering suicide toward another methodology. However, according to the National Institutes of Health, the restriction of firearms has the potential to reduce suicide rates overall without also resulting in an increase in rates of alternative methods of suicide. This is because while many believe suicide to be a decision drawn out over the course of days, weeks and months, it is often a much more impulsive act. Around of quarter of individuals who attempt suicide deliberated for five minutes or less. Only 13 percent deliberated suicide for over a day. Possessing, or having easy access to, a firearm during this period of impulsive thinking has led to a public health crisis that is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in the United States.

There is historical evidence that the removal of methods of self-harm can reduce a nation’s overall suicide rate. For example, the United Kingdom once suffered from high rates of suicide by gas inhalation. In 1958, the previously used gas was replaced with a carbon monoxide-free version, and the United Kingdom witnessed an overall decrease in suicides. Sri Lanka had a similar problem regarding suicide using a particularly toxic pesticide. When the pesticide was restricted, the country saw its suicide rate cut in half between 1995 and 2005. It would seem to follow that decreasing access to firearms in the United States could have a similar impact on the suicide rate in this country.

Guns are of particular issue in the United States, with nearly 42 percent of Americans either owning a gun or having one in their household. On top of their widespread availability, guns are an incredibly lethal method of suicide. In this context, firearms have a lethality rate of 82.5 percent as compared to methods such as suffocation at 61.4 percent and drug poisoning at 1.5 percent. Firearms’ high mortality rate paired with their relative ease of access makes them the most common method of suicide in the United States, responsible for 51 percent of cases. This is followed by suffocation at 25.9 percent and drug poisoning at 11.3 percent. The fact is that guns are an accessible means of suicide and there is not nearly enough being done about it.

The issue of suicide cannot and should not be boiled down to a single issue such as firearms. Similarly, the issue of gun control cannot and should not be boiled down to a single issue such as mass shootings. If the overall goal of the modern-day gun-control movement is to save lives, the movement cannot ignore that over half of those killed by firearms died as the result of suicide. We cannot limit our political advocacy to items such as assault weapon bans and carrying capacity limits. Legislation ought to be more comprehensive, with emphasis on items such as Extreme Risk Protection Orders, which facilitate the removal of firearms from people who are believed to be at a risk of harming themselves or others. Policies like these should be paired with programs such as training for gun shop owners that teaches them to see the warning signs of individuals in emotional distress and point them toward the proper resources. Programs like these have the capability to cut down the rate of suicide in the United States and save thousands of lives.