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More Americans than ever are committing suicide with a gun

More Americans than ever are committing suicide with a gun

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An average of 63 U.S. residents a day are now taking their own life with a gun, the highest number ever recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s 22,938 suicides by firearm in the most recently tallied year of 2016, according to a national database kept by the federal health agency. And it tops the previous high of 22,018 in 2015.

Even when controlling for population increases, the rate of 7.10 firearm suicides per 100,000 people is still the highest it’s been since 1994, when there were 7.18 gun suicides per 100,000.

This agonizing trend hasn’t garnered much attention as the nation understandably grapples with the toll of mass shootings, and fans grieve the loss of public figures who used other methods to take their own life.

But suicides, by far, are the most common type of death by firearm. And firearms are the most common tool used to commit suicide.

Over time, the figures become staggering.

Since 1981, when the CDC first started keeping records, there have been 657,934 suicides by gun in the United States, compared to 485,171 homicides and fatal shootings by law enforcement. In the same time period, suicides by gun accounted for 55 percent of all suicides in the United States, according to the CDC data.

Some psychologists point to high suicide rates in nations with strict gun laws to make the case that a person intent on taking their own life will find a way to do so. Japan has been one example, though suicide has been tied to spiritual atonement there for centuries.

Veronica Pear, a data analysist with the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, pointed out that 83 percent of all suicide attempts in the United States result in death when a gun is used. Suicide attempts involving overdoses have been found to be 45 times less fatal, cutting and stabbing 30 times less fatal, and those involving jumping from a height three times less fatal. 

“The best policy we can pursue is try to reduce access to firearms among people who are suicidal,” said Pear.

The Washington D.C.-based Violence Policy Center released a report in May calling the gun suicide rate an ongoing epidemic.

“Reducing access to firearms is a critical step in addressing this clear public health threat,” said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the center.

Immediate access to a gun can make all the difference, experts believe, because suicide is an impulsive act, often tied to an immediate stressor such as a relationship ending, or a job loss. And in young people, experts point out, the impulsiveness is amplified, with bullying, the divorce of parents, or even bad grades at school becoming the fatal stressor.

The CDC figures bear this out with heartbreaking clarity as well. 

In the most recent statistical year of 2016, according to the CDC, 633 boys and girls under the age of 17 took their lives with a gun. That is the highest number for this age group since 1998.

In a 61-page report released in March titled “Protecting the Parkland Generation,” the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence found that there is a generational nature to suicide by firearm. “Minors exposed to gun violence are also at greater risk of harming themselves,” reads the report. “And the nexus between PTSD and teen suicide is undeniable.”

The CDC figures also provide powerful evidence that the toll can be reduced if some states are willing to follow the lead of others.

States with stronger gun laws experience suicides by firearm at a fraction of the rate of those without them. Safe storage laws appear to play a strong role in reducing the deaths.

For example, New Jersey had a rate of 1.8 suicides by firearm per 100,000 residents in the most recent statistical year of 2016, compared to Montana’s rate of 15.64. Massachusetts, with perhaps the strongest gun storage law in the country, had a rate of 1.89 compared to a rate of 14.44 in Alaska.

Frontier and Big Sky states are environments where gun ownership is a way of life, even a necessity. And isolated rural areas experience all methods of suicide at rates higher than urban environments.

But even when examining states of comparable economic status and urban to rural demographics, those with stronger gun laws still show far lower suicide-by-firearm rates.

According to the Gun Law Scorecard compiled by the Giffords Center, the state of New York receives an A- while neighboring Pennsylvania receives a C. New York has a suicide by firearm rate of 2.30, compared to 7.05 in Pennsylvania.

Though the CDC has dutifully kept the statistics on suicide by gun that I’ve cited here, it has left the research on gun violence prevention to nonprofits because of the so-called “Dickey Amendment.” The 1996 regulation blocks federal agencies from any research that would “advocate or promote” gun control.  

The 1990s were a landmark period for gun control efforts in the United States, with the passage of the Brady handgun law in 1993 and the federal assault weapons ban in 1994. The assault weapons ban expired in 2004 and renewal efforts have since failed.

Pressure brought on by Parkland survivors, and other gun control advocates, finally caused Congress to revisit the research ban in the federal spending bill signed by President Trump in March. But the spending bill provided no specific funding and might have even narrowed its parameters to research on the “causes” of gun violence.

Meanwhile, Trump has nominated U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, a move praised by the NRA.

In a 2011 dissent, Kavanaugh argued that Washington, D.C.’s assault weapons ban and gun registration requirements were unconstitutional, even if they would save lives.

“D.C. believes that its law will help it fight violent crime. Few government responsibilities are more significant,” Kavanaugh wrote. “That said, the Supreme Court has long made clear that the Constitution disables the government from employing certain means to prevent, deter, or detect violent crime.”

His argument did not mention suicide by gun.


[Photo by MilitaryHealth via Flickr.]


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What is the purpose of saving somebody crazy enough to kill themselves?!? I was a biology major in college and I can assure you that crazy humans are the only creatures on our planet who take their own lives.

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Which mentioned that suicide is often an "impulsive" act, which is performed under duress. The data are clear that if you prevent a suicide in the moment, that the vast majority of those people (with treatment and support) don't die by suicide.
I"d also take issue with your assertion that only people take their own lives... if you've lived with animals, you'd see that they can get depressed and when older many animals hasten their own deaths by desisting from eating. They also lack opposable thumbs which would allow them to take their own lives by firearm (or other means of completing the act)!!

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Concluding that suicidal = crazy is just pure ignorance.

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Suicide is a right.


The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 National Fellowship will provide $2,000 to $10,000 reporting grants, five months of mentoring from a veteran journalist, and a week of intensive training at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles from July 16-20. Click here for more information and the application form, due May 5.

The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 Symposium on Domestic Violence provides reporters with a roadmap for covering this public health epidemic with nuance and sensitivity. The next session will be offered virtually on Friday, March 31. Journalists attending the symposium will be eligible to apply for a reporting grant of $2,000 to $10,000 from our Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Find more info here!


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