More than 38,000 individuals committed suicide in the United States in 2010 (latest available data), more than twice the number of people who were homicide victims that year. Firearms are used in more than 50 percent of all suicides, and death by firearms is the fastest growing method of self-destruction in this country.
Although women attempt suicide three times as often as men, males are nearly four times more likely to die by their own hand than women. This discrepancy is explained in large measure by males choosing firearms to end their lives while women opt for less successful methods of self-destruction. In 2005, for example, 14,916 men died as a consequence of self-inflicted gunshot wounds while 2,086 females killed themselves with firearms.
Controlling for suicide-related factors such as mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse, Matthew Miller of the Harvard University Injury Control Research Center compared the number of gun-related suicides in low-gun-ownership states with the number of suicides in high-gun-ownership states. The low-gun-ownership states (where 15 percent of households have guns), with a combined population of 39 million people, were Hawaii, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut and New York. The high-gun-ownership states (where 47 percent of households reported having a firearm), with a total of 40 million individuals, were Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arkansas, West Virginia, Montana, Alaska, Mississippi, Iowa, Alabama, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Tennessee and Utah. Miller found that although the number of non-firearm suicides was approximately the same in both groups of states, the high-gun states had almost four times the number of firearm-related suicides as low-gun states.
In a New England Journal of Medicine article, Miller and his colleague David Hemenway report that at least 12 studies found having a gun in the home is associated with an increased risk of suicide. The authors note this increase is dramatic, "typically 2 to 10 times that in homes without guns, depending on the sample population (e.g., adolescents vs. older adults) and on the way in which the firearms were stored." Miller and Hemenway argue the increased risk of suicide in homes with guns is not limited to the firearms owner, as his or her spouse and children also have a greater risk of self-inflicted death.
Gun-owning parents are often under the false impression their firearms are properly stored and, therefore, out of the reach of children. One study questioned the children (separately) of gun-owning parents who had reported that their children "never" handled firearms in the home. Twenty-two percent of these children contradicted their parents, stating they did handle these weapons.
In any given year, there are almost nine unsuccessful suicide attempts for every suicide fatality in this country. This is explained by the method employed to end one's life. In a recent year, 85 percent of gun-related suicide attempts resulted in the death of an individual, compared to 69 percent of suffocation attempts, 31 percent of falls/jumping attempts, 2 percent of poisoning/overdose attempts and 1 percent of cutting/piercing attempts. A study conducted by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control found that suicide victims living in homes with firearms were 30 times more likely to have died from a gun-related suicide than from suicides committed via a different method. As a Harvard School of Public Heath bulletin states, "Guns are more lethal than other suicide means. They're quick. And they're irreversible."
Individuals attempting suicide by overdosing on pills, inhaling car exhaust fumes or cutting their wrists, for example, have time to reconsider what they are doing, even midway through the attempt. It addition, the attempt may fail, and/or the suicide attempter might be rescued during the ordeal. The method of self-destruction chosen is of critical importance because approximately 90 percent of individuals who attempt to end their lives and fail will not die by their own hand at a later date.
While some suicides are deliberate, carefully planned events, many are impulsive, with individuals reacting to short-term problems. "Suicidal crisis" such as the end of a relationship, loss of a job or a run-in with the police are often transitory difficulties. One study of 153 "nearly lethal" suicide attempts by individuals 13 to 34 years of age asked, "How much time passed between the time you decided to complete suicide and when you actually attempted suicide?" Twenty-four percent said less than five minutes, 24 percent said five to 19 minutes, and 23 percent said 20 minutes to one hour.
The impulse to end one's life in response to a short-term crisis by way of firearms is what makes gun-related suicides so tragic. In the time it takes ingested drugs to end one's life, or the suicide attempter walks or drives to a bridge planning to jump, the worst of the crisis that triggered the self-destructive urge may pass, or at least diminish. With a firearm in the house, it may only be a matter of minutes (if not seconds) between the high point of the self-destructive urge and putting a gun to one's head and pulling the trigger. As Matthew Miller stated, "If people reach for a gun, they don't get a second chance; if they reach for the pills, they do."
Access to guns is a major factor in military suicides. According to the U.S. Army, approximately 70 percent of Army suicides are committed with firearms. Retired Army Col. Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, who has studied military suicides extensively, states that in combat zones, the weapon used for self-destruction is usually a government-issued firearm. Stateside, the killing weapon is typically a privately owned gun. Ritchie notes that "the gun in the nightstand is too easy to pull out and use when a person is angry or humiliated or fighting with a spouse."
A comprehensive study of police suicides found that approximately 90 percent of these deaths were from self-inflicted gunshot wounds. John Violanti, a leading researcher on police suicides at the University of Buffalo (and a 23-year New York State Police veteran), argues that firearms have a special significance for police officers. That is, they are weapons issued to protect people from harm and misery, "to take the life of another person in certain situations. In police suicides, officers, in effect, are claiming the right to take their own lives."
The suicide rate in the United States increased from 10.4 per 100,000 population in 2000 to 12.4 per 100,000 population in 2010. One factor in this decade-long increase is the growing number of firearms in American households. (In 2010, Americans owned approximately 300 million guns.) Because of this proliferation of firearms, more people have access to the most lethal method of self-destruction.
Harvard researchers Matthew Miller and David Hemenway state that "many clinicians who care deeply about preventing suicide are unfamiliar with the existing evidence linking guns to suicide. Too many seem to believe that anyone who is serious enough about suicide to use a gun would find an equally effective means if a gun were not available. This belief is invalid."
George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.
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