America’s Other Gun Problem

What would you say the “average” death to gunfire in the United States looks like? Is it part of a high profile mass shooting, like the recent tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School? Is it a shootout in a gang turf war in the slums of a major city like Chicago? Is it an already-unstable, abusive husband snapping completely and taking the lives of his wife and children? Not even close. By a wide margin, the median American gun death is a suicide.

  • 22,938 people committed suicide using a gun in the United States in 2016. [1]
  • 51.0% of all suicides that year (44,965) were committed using a gun. [1]
  • 59.3% of all gun deaths (38,658) were suicides. [1]

Suicide must become a more significant part of our national conversation on firearm safety. The current discussion focuses almost entirely on preventing homicide, and mass homicide in particular. This is both admirable and important, but the fact of the matter is that to overlook suicide is to overlook a huge number of gun deaths, many of which are preventable. Some people mistakenly think that a person who desires to take their own life will find a way to do so, gun or no gun. Statistical evidence suggests otherwise:

  • Overall, only 1 in 25 suicide attempts is successful. [2]
  • However, suicide attempts using a firearm are successful 9 times out of 10. For comparison, only 1 in 50 overdose attempts is successful. [3]
  • Men account for over 75% of completed suicides, even though women are 1.2 times as likely as men to have attempted suicide (among teens, girls are twice as likely as boys to have made an attempt). [4] This discrepancy is thought to be due to the fact that men are much more likely than women to attempt suicide with a gun.

These numbers paint a clear picture: a gun is by far the most common and most efficient method of suicide in the United States. It is not unreasonable to think that reducing access to such an effective means could markedly reduce completed suicides, especially considering the following:

  • 71% of suicide attempts are made less than one hour after the person decides to commit suicide. 24% are made after less than 5 minutes. [3]
  • Over 70% of people who unsuccessfully attempt suicide will never try again. [5]

These numbers offer some hope, implying that a large proportion of suicides are momentary, emotional decisions, rather than months-long determinations. It is likely that many of these could be averted if the individuals in question did not have access to lethal means in their moment of crisis.

An anecdote from British history may be instructive here: during the mid-20th century, the most common method of suicide in the United Kingdom was poisoning by gas stove. Domestic gas at the time had a high carbon monoxide content, and was capable of quickly killing a human being if a valve was left open in a confined space. Thousands of people took their own lives via this easily accessible, relatively painless method. Then, in 1958, carbon monoxide-free natural gas was introduced in the UK, and by 1971 powered almost 70% of gas stoves. Suicide by gas during this time decreased sharply, and although there was a slight corresponding increase in suicide by other means, it was significantly smaller than the drop in gas suicides. [6] This supports the idea that when access to effective means of suicide is reduced, a significant number of people will be dissuaded from making an attempt at all.

So what sorts of gun safety measures could reasonably be implemented in the United States to combat suicide? One idea that shows promise is a “gun violence restraining order”, wherein a judge may order a person’s firearms to be confiscated for a short time if it is determined that the person is a threat to himself. [7] These orders do not appear on a person’s criminal record, and are usually initiated by family members. Trigger lock laws have also shown potential in some states, requiring that a lock accompany all gun sales and that this lock be kept on the gun whenever it is not on the owner’s person. There are numerous other policy ideas and initiatives that may be effective here, and we need to be talking about them.

I ask that prevention of suicide be included in our current discussion of firearms in America.  Suicide is where the most damage is being done, and preventing it is where we have the potential to do the most good. Gun safety measures will not be the entire solution, but they will be a critical part of it. The evidence clearly shows that careful regulation of access to lethal means, like guns, saves lives. So, let’s go save some lives.



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