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:





Buying Time


One day several years ago, a 14-year-old boy got off the bus and walked to the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge. Some things were troubling him, and he put his leg up over the railing, preparing to jump. Then he took his leg down, caught the bus home, and told his mother, who sought help immediately. He’s fine now.

Without that pause to reconsider, this boy’s life may have ended in a tragedy that has claimed the lives of more than 1,600 people known to have jumped to their deaths from the iconic but deadly landmark.

There’s long been talk of a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge. At last there is action: Earlier this summer, the bridge district directors committed the final $76 million needed for safety nets to deter jumpers. The barrier will be operational in three years.

It’s been a long time coming. The most potent opposition has rested on a widespread misconception: many wrongly believe that people stopped from jumping will just go on to find another way to kill themselves.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Although some who are intent on suicide will find a way to die no matter what, fewer than 10 percent of those pulled from the bridge later take their own lives.

Ninety percent go on living—that’s a phenomenal success rate.

The most lethal means of suicide—death by firearms and jumping—are often chosen not by those who have carefully planned their own demise, but by those acting impulsively in a moment of upset. Young people are particularly susceptible to impulsivity; teens account for more than 10 percent of those who make the fatal plunge.

It only takes a moment—to go over the edge of the alluringly low railing, or to pull back from it. A moment that means life or death.

Buying time is the essence of suicide prevention. Time allows impulses to pass, moods to shift, circumstances to improve. Would-be jumpers who are thwarted by a barrier gain precious time to change their mind.

That’s time those who go over the railing probably wish they had. Kevin Hines is one of the very few who made the leap and lived to tell about it. Here’s what he said in an interview with a New York Times reporter: “I’ll tell you what I can’t get out of my head. It’s watching my hands come off that railing and thinking to myself, My God, what have I just done? Because I know that almost everyone else who’s gone off that bridge, they had that exact same thought at that moment. All of a sudden, they didn’t want to die, but it was too late.”

As the saying goes, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. With the Golden Gate Bridge barrier in place, we will have a much better permanent solution to the temporary problem of suicidal impulses.

It’s about time.


For further information:

“The Urge to End it All,” by Scott Anderson. New York Times Magazine, July 6, 2008.

The Final Leap, by John Bateson (publication date 2015).

Myths about Suicide, by Thomas Joiner (2011).

Bridge Rail Foundation:

24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255