Suicide by Gun

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Once again, America is transfixed by a mass shooting. No doubt the list of massacres will grow to encompass other shattered towns and families, evoking fear and horror every time.

Yet almost two-thirds of gun deaths do not make national headlines. These are the more than 21,000 people–many of them teenagers— who every year kill themselves with a gun.

As someone who has worked in the field of suicide prevention for decades, I know that the best way to prevent these tragedies is to restrict access to guns. Current research contradicts the commonly held but false belief that suicidal individuals will just find some other way to kill themselves. In fact, self-destructive feelings are often impulsive and fleeting, dissipating as the crisis passes. Ninety percent of those who survive an attempt never go on to die by suicide. But when guns are involved, the crisis can quickly escalate, precluding safe resolution. Fast and deadly equals no second chances.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, those states with the highest rate of gun ownership also have the highest rates of suicide. Access to lethal means is a far greater risk factor than mental illness. Although some promote the fallacy that a gun in the home makes you safer, the opposite is true. The risk of suicide is two to five times greater for all household members in gun-owning homes. In one study, 82 percent of children 17 and under who shot themselves to death used a gun belonging to a family member. Homes without guns have the lowest suicide rates, but even in homes where firearms are present, risk decreases if they’re properly stored—unloaded and under lock and key.

When it comes to preventing suicide, means matter. We always ask why people kill themselves. But we’re better off focusing on how so many people die.

It’s the guns. If we really want to save lives, restricting easy access to such lethal means is our best approach.


The statistics cited here are from these sources, which provide a wealth of additional information: