Guns and Suicide

Violence Policy Center, May 2018

Guns claimed more than 38,000 lives in the United States in 2016. Yet unknown to most people is the fact that the most common type of gun death in our nation is suicide, not homicide. Equally unknown, and just as misunderstood, is the fact that the vast majority of suicides are preventable. People who use a gun to kill themselves aren’t necessarily more suicidal than those who use other means, they just have the tragic misfortune of having the most lethal means available to them in their time of depression and turmoil. Below are key facts regarding suicide and firearms.

In 2016 (the latest year for which complete national data is available) there were 44,965 suicides in the United States: 123 suicides per day; one suicide every 11.7 minutes. Of these 44,965 deaths, more than half (51.0 percent) used a firearm to take their own lives.

* Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Homicide is the 16th.

* Nearly three out of five people who die from gunshot wounds take their own lives.

* In 2016, the number of gun deaths by suicide in the United States was 22,938, whereas suicide by suffocation resulted in 11,642 deaths and suicide by poisoning resulted in 6,698 deaths.

A common argument is that a suicidal person will find a way to kill himself or herself no matter what — and a gun just happened to be available. However, the Harvard School of Public Health notes that “virtually every other method is less lethal than a firearm so there’s greater chance the person won’t die in their attempt...With a firearm, once the trigger is pulled, there’s no turning back.”

* Approximately 85 percent of suicide attempts with a firearm are fatal. Many of the other most widely used suicide attempt methods have case fatality rates below five percent.

* Guns, unlike other methods, require less preparation and planning. Nearly half (48 percent) of suicide attempt patients reported less than 20 minutes elapsed from first thought of suicide to actual attempt.

* “Attempters who take pills or inhale car exhaust or use razors have some time to reconsider mid-attempt and summon help or be rescued. The method itself often fails, even in the absence of a rescue.”

Every study that has examined the issue to date has found that within the United States, access to firearms is associated with increased suicide risk.

* “Merely having a gun in one’s home increases the likelihood that someone living there will commit suicide by a factor of 2 to 10.”

* States with higher rates of gun ownership tend to have higher rates of suicide than states with less gun ownership.

* One analysis found that, in total, there were almost twice as many suicides among people living in high- gun states as there were in low-gun states even though non-firearm suicides were about equal.

The Harvard School of Public Health created the Means Matter Campaign because “means reduction” has been proven to reduce suicide rates.

* When lethal means are made less available or less deadly (“means reduction”), suicide rates by that method decline, and frequently suicide rates overall decline. This has been demonstrated in a number of areas in the context of suicide: bridge barriers, detoxification of domestic gas, pesticides, medication packaging, and others.

* Firearm owners are not more suicidal than non-firearm owners; rather, their suicide attempts are more likely to be fatal because of guns’ heightened lethality.

* Nine out of 10 people who attempt suicide and survive will not go on to die by suicide at a later date.

* A lethal weapon available to a person in the depths of despair can end a life in an instant. Firearms are used in five out of 10 suicides in the U.S. Removing lethal means from a vulnerable person, especially a youth, can save a life.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

Although we desperately need to improve our health care financing system because of its high costs and mediocre performance, leaving too many out, we need to intensify efforts at improving public health and prevention. It would be great to have an improved Medicare for everyone, but that is of little help when presented with someone who just died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. For that problem, prevention is an imperative.

Guns are a public health hazard. In 2016, guns claimed more than 38,000 lives, and almost 23,000 were by suicide. Understanding the facts, as listed in this report from the Violence Policy Center, lead to some obvious conclusions as to interventions that would help. Some can be accomplished in the private sector, but others clearly require public policies and regulations.

What do gun regulations and a single payer national health program have in common? We've known for decades the public policies in both of these realms that we need to enact in order to improve the protection and preservation of our health, and yet we have failed to act. Yes, we have many regulations for both health care and guns, but they are so feeble that they have failed us.

Are we going to continue to let America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) and the National Rifle Association (NRA) obstruct the reforms that we need? Or are we finally going to let our elected representatives know that we are serious about wanting action now?

Today is election day in California. I'm about to vote, and these issues will certainly influence my selections. I hope that they will influence yours as well.

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