Gun suicides far outpace gun homicides. Here's why that statistic matters.
About two-thirds of gun deaths in the U.S. each year are suicides, traumatic and desperate acts that often lie at the nexus of mental illness and ready access to a firearm. Yet a new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine finds that only 13% of people know that gun suicides far outpace homicides, a likely function of regular news coverage of violent crimes and a tendency to not cover suicides.
Why does that matter?
As the study’s authors point out, people who buy firearms for self-protection from criminal attacks or home invasions — even though firearms offer more reassurance than actual protection — may not be aware of the other related risks.
“This research indicates that in the scope of violent death, the majority of U.S. adults don’t know how people are dying,” said Erin Morgan, the lead author and an epidemiology graduate student at the University of Washington School of Public Health. “Knowing that the presence of a firearm increases the risk for suicide, and that firearm suicide is substantially more common than firearm homicide, may lead people to think twice about whether or not firearm ownership and their storage practices are really the safest options for them and their household.”
Statistics on suicides and gun access are sobering. Since 1999, suicide rates have increased in every state except Nevada, and the rates have jumped by at least 30% in more than half of the states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most suicides were by people without known mental illnesses at the time, and 55% of those deaths involved firearms.
So thousands of people with access to guns who hadn’t exhibited notable mental illness shot themselves to death.
Notably, among all suicides, only 22% involved people with underlying health issues, while 42% of those committing suicide had relationship problems, 29% had just experienced or knew of a pending personal crisis, and 28% had substance abuse problems. Suicide often, as experts warn, is an impulsive act, and having a lethal weapon at hand makes that impulse more likely to be deadly.
Other studies have found that state-level nonfirearm suicide rates are similar across the country, but the level of firearm suicides is higher in states with high levels of gun ownership. And firearms are much deadlier than other methods used by those attempting to kill themselves — about 93% of gun attempts result in death, according to CDC data, though it warns that it’s nonfatal injury data isn’t as rock-solid as one would like. But only a sliver of people who poisoned themselves in 2016 died — 6,698 deaths in 266,175 attempts, according to CDC data. Even those who sought to suffocate themselves (often by hanging) survived more than twice as often as those who used a gun — 4,091 survived and were treated at hospitals, while 22,642 died.
So the presence of a firearm in the home increases the chance that someone will kill himself — middle-aged white men are most prone — with a weapon often bought for self- protection.
That seems worth talking about.