Suicide is a devastating event in the life of everyone it touches. It leaves in its aftermath the unanswered question of how it could have been prevented. This is National Suicide Prevention Week and therefore the right time to acknowledge the outsize relationship between guns and suicide.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost twice as many people committed suicide by firearms than were killed in gun homicides: 21,175 vs. 11,208 in 2013. Guns are used in more than half of all successful suicides even though they account for less than 10 percent of suicide attempts.
When looking at ways to reduce the number of people who die by suicide, focusing on the means — how people attempt to commit suicide — matters greatly. According to the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, gun suicide attempts succeed in 85 percent of cases, far ahead of most other means. Poisoning and drug overdose, which account for 10 times more suicide attempts than guns, are successful in only 2 percent of cases.
Some critics say the increased lethality of gun suicide attempts doesn’t matter because people will find another means to end their lives. While true to a degree, this ignores the fact that guns are so much more lethal, and that suicide attempts are often made in the moment. A study conducted by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that two-thirds of survivors of suicide attempts had deliberated for an hour or less before attempting to take their lives. Other studies have shown that 9 out of 10 people who have failed in their suicide attempts do not later die by suicide.
The conclusion is clear: limiting access to the most lethal means of suicide would save many lives. The most lethal method of suicide is by gun, and the prevalence of guns in America — they are present in one of every three homes — means they are easily accessible. Choosing to take one’s life at the end of a gun is easy and effective; rarely is there a second chance.
Real life examples show that limiting access to firearms can substantially reduce the overall incidence of suicide. In Australia, following a mass shooting that killed 35, the country introduced strict gun laws and instituted a gun buyback program that removed nearly one-fifth of all firearms. Following the reduction in firearms, the suicide rate dropped nearly 80 percent. In Israel, where suicide among young soldiers was a substantial problem, prohibiting them from bringing their guns home over the weekend led to a 40 percent drop in suicides, with no corresponding increase during the week. Without quarreling with gun owners’ right to defend themselves in their homes with firearms, they should be aware that their guns are much more likely to be used for suicide than for self-defense. The toll that guns in the home inflict on our children is especially tragic. A National Violent Injury Statistics study of firearm suicides among youths ages 17 and under found that 82 percent used a firearm belonging to a family member, usually a parent.
With two-thirds of gun deaths caused by suicide, and suicide one of the top 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. (and far higher among teens and young adults), effective gun laws should be part of the solution as well. A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that four gun safety measures each contributed to lower rates of gun suicide: universal background checks, waiting periods, gun lock requirements, and restrictions on open carrying of firearms.
Although there is unfortunately little common ground between gun safety advocates and protectors of gun rights, suicide prevention can be an area in which they can work together for non-legislative solutions. In New Hampshire, where gun suicides far outnumber other modes of gun death, a collaboration of the New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition, mental health and public health practitioners, firearms dealers and gun rights advocates launched the Gun Shop Project. It produces educational materials for display in gun retailer stores. About half of gun retailers in New Hampshire participate.
How can you help prevent gun suicides? If you want to keep a gun in your home, make sure it is stored in the most secure manner possible: unloaded and locked, with ammunition stored separately. If you know someone who shows signs of depression, suggest that they temporarily remove firearms from their home, bringing them to a federally licensed gun dealer or local law enforcement for safe storage. If that doesn’t work, and you are fortunate enough to live in Connecticut, California, or Indiana, contact local law enforcement to initiate an investigation. Each of these states has gun seizure laws that allow authorities to remove firearms when there is an imminent threat to the gun owner or others.
Because suicide is so often an impulse, a simple phone call can save a life. If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline anytime at (800) 273-8255.
Too many people agonize over what they could have done to prevent a suicide. Making it harder to access firearms is a good place to start.
Jonathan Perloe leads the Greenwich Council Against Gun Violence, is Treasurer of the Southwestern CT Chapter of the Brady Campaign, and serves on the board of CT Against Gun Violence.
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