Forgotten Killer in Gun Control Debate

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When we talk about reducing gun violence, one of the first things that come to mind is ending the senseless murder of innocent people; of stopping one person from taking another person’s life. In the aftermath of the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut, the debate on gun violence has been focused on restricting use and access to assault-style weapons and improving criminal background checks. With most of our attention focused on homicides and reducing gun violence directed toward other people, it is easy to forget about reducing gun violence in the cases where people are taking their own lives.

In the US, suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24, claiming almost 5,000 lives each year. Almost 50% of suicides in young people are firearm-related, making it a serious public health issue. 1 And according to the CDC, practically 20,000 of the 30,000 firearm-related deaths each year are suicides, with the national suicide rate increasing by 12% since 2003.3

One of the major factors that put youth at risk for suicide is having easy access to lethal methods, such as firearms.The three states with the highest suicide rates – Wyoming, Montana, and Alaska – are the states with the highest prevalence of firearms in the home.3 Simply having a firearm in the home increases the possibility that someone within that home will commit suicide by a factor of 2-10, depending on that person’s age and how the firearm is stored.2 Some argue that there is not a causal relationship between having access to a firearm and suicide and that there are many other contributing factors, some that may make firearm owners more susceptible to suicide to begin with,3 but regardless of cause and effect, people are taking their own lives and it is far too easy for them to do so. Some may also argue that people who are seriously considering suicide will find a way to kill themselves even if they do not have access to firearms but the fact of the matter is, these other methods are much less lethal and buy more time for an intervention.

Harvard School of Public Health has created a suicide prevention program called Means Matter, which examines not only why people commit suicide but also how they do and because a large percentage of them are firearm-related, they focus on making access to firearms more difficult for people who are depressed or suicidal. Reducing firearm-related suicides may be that simple. According to a study done by the Violence Prevention Research Group at UCLA, throughout the US, people who committed suicide were 17 times more likely to have lived in a home with a firearm than people who did not.2 But even with tighter gun control laws, public health officials are still concerned that people suffering from depression or other mental illness have easy access to firearms that they themselves or a family member may have purchased legally.

One way to reduce the likelihood of a firearm holder committing suicide is imposing mandatory firearm locks and proper storage of the firearm, which at the very least, increase the time between suicidal ideation and gaining access to the firearm.2 But this hasn’t proven to be enough in the past. Some gun shops are now also including suicide warning signs and prevention tips, as well as suicide hotline contact information.

With violence and gun control being in the spotlight, it is the hope of public health officials that we will be able to not only reduce gun violence perpetrated against others but also include suicide prevention as part of the solution to reducing overall deaths from guns.

  1. Injury Center: Violence Prevention. (2013). Suicide Prevention, Youth Suicide. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/suicide/youth_suicide.html
  2. Neyfakh L. (2013). The gun toll we’re ignoring: suicide. The Boston Globe. http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2013/01/20/the-gun-toll-ignoring-suicide/xeWBHDHEvvagfkRlU3CfZJ/story.html
  3. Tavernise S. (2013). To reduce suicide rates, new focus turns to guns. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/14/us/to-lower-suicide-rates-new-focus-turns-to-guns.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0