Did you know that murder is not the type of gun violence that kills the most Americans?
When you think of gun violence, what is the first thing that comes to mind? When most people think of gun violence they think of it in terms of one person shooting another person. Gang conflicts, domestic abuse, robberies, Columbine, Newtown, and the list goes on. When people discuss gun control and how to reduce gun violence in the U.S. the discussion almost always centers on preventing murders. But according to a recent report in The Boston Globe, if you add up all gun deaths in the US for 2010, the last year that complete numbers are available, gun deaths by suicide outnumbered homicides 19,392 to 11,078. In fact, if you add up all the gun deaths that year, and this is including accidents, “3 out of 5 people who died from gunshot wounds took their own lives.”
This would seem to indicate that suicide should be a bigger part of the gun control debate, don’t you think? Especially when faced with the fact that the majority of gun deaths in the US have been self-inflicted and not murder almost every year since at least 1920. Many public health researchers across the nation are, in fact, arguing that the subject of suicide needs to be brought into the light and made a much larger part of the gun control debate. They assert that to truly reduce gun deaths in America, “will mean not just fighting crime or keeping firearms out of the hands of potential killers, but trying to minimize the number of people who have access to guns during their darkest hours.”
Unfortunately, as Daniel Webster, the director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University explains, “A lot of people, when they think about guns and violence—suicide is just kind of off the radar screen. People think about the gun problem as something that someone else is going to do to them.”
At the center of this argument is the belief that a significant number of suicides could have been prevented if the victim had not had easy access to a gun. However, this can be difficult for people to process for two reasons. First, there is a common belief that if someone wants to end their own life they will find a way to do it, no matter what means are necessary. Second, it creates quite a challenge for both sides of the gun debate, both of which use people’s fear of murder to lend power and credibility to their arguments. But as many experts are pointing out, “it’s time to recognize that in the majority of cases, the people doing the shooting are also the ones who are dying.”
Honestly, the numbers speak for themselves. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, there are more suicides committed with guns than with all other methods combined. In fact, based on multiple studies done across the nation, experts have come to the striking conclusion that simply “having a gun in one’s home increases the likelihood that someone living there will commit suicide by a factor of two to ten, depending on age and how the gun is stored.” In fact, within the public health community, many have come to believe that easy access to a gun will make it more likely that a person who wants to end their own life will actually manage to do so.
One such study, conducted by Harvard professor Matthew Miller, compared suicide rates for people living in “high-gun states” verses those living in “low-gun states.” His research shows that although the rates of depression and suicidal thoughts were quite similar in both places, the actual success of suicide was almost 4 times higher in the “high-gun states.”
Part of the reason for these staggering statistics is the simple fact that, unlike so many other forms of suicide, guns give a person no opportunity to change their mind. According to Alan Berman, the executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, guns require significantly “less preparation and planning, provided they’re accessible.”
What many people don’t seem to understand is that just because a person is suicidal during an acute crisis does not mean they are suicidal all the time. There is actually a large body of evidence, including interviews with survivors of suicide attempts, which indicates that “most suicidal acts come during a surprisingly short period.” As Miller points out that “When you ask people who’ve made attempts and survived, even attempts that are life threatening and would have proved lethal [without emergency medical care], what they say is, ‘It was an impulsive act, and I’m glad that I’m alive.’”
All of this would seem to indicate that a significant number of lives could be saved simply by making sure a person didn’t have access to these extremely lethal weapons during those high-risk periods. One way to do reduce the risk that people will shoot themselves on impulse is to make gun locks and proper gun storage mandatory. This would increase the time it takes for a person to have a loaded gun in their hand, which would in turn increase the chances they might survive.
Another option is making it more socially acceptable for friends and family members of people going through a difficult period to ask them to, temporarily, get rid of their guns. The New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition, along with researchers from Harvard, have started promoting this very thing by joining with gun shop owners to educate and distribute literature asking customers to “be attentive to signs of emotional distress among fellow gun owners.” They hope that this will encourage people to become more comfortable with the idea of taking guns away from a friend or family member when they are in a period of crisis. They are adamant that this is a “caring message,” and not an “anti-gun” message. They hope that eventually people will begin to realize that one of the best ways to help a loved one who is possibly a suicide risk is to keep firearms away from them.
The gun debate however, is focused almost solely on people’s fear of being shot in a robbery or a mass murder. The idea that someone they love, or even they themselves could die by suicide is much more remote and feels significantly less urgent than other types of gun violence. This is just one more reason that it is so important to make the public aware of the actual statistics concerning gun violence and suicide. While it may seem less urgent and far removed from everyday life, the reality is that bringing the issue of suicide front and center in the national debate over gun control may be the best way there is to reduce the number of deaths by gun violence.
What do you think? Would better control help reduce the rates of suicide? How about the idea of gun shop owners helping educate buyers about the risk of suicide?
For more resources, please explore the following articles/websites or call 1-800-273-talk
Suicide Prevention: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
Signs of Depression: http://riversidetraumacenter.org/documents/DepressionSuicideWarningSigns6.pdf