Access to guns means higher rates of suicide. What we can do about it is a harder question.

I recently shared this article on my Facebook page. The crux of the article is this: States with higher gun ownership have higher rates of youth suicide, and the gun ownership leads directly to more suicide. According to the article, “For each 10 percentage-point increase in household gun ownership, the youth suicide rate increased by 26.9 percent.”

This study comes in addition to the overwhelming evidence which shows that access to guns leads directly to higher rates of suicide. This isn’t just in terms of youth suicide, but for individuals across the country, regardless of age.

Why is this? While suicidal thoughts and ideation can be a long standing problem, the impulse to actually kill oneself is often a fleeting impulse. That’s why so many advocates – including me – have concentrated on means reduction when it comes to suicide: If we can get someone through that terribly difficult moment, we may be able to get them the help that they need.

Unfortunately, guns are one of the deadliest methods of suicide. If someone attempts suicide with a gun, that method will tragically “work” more than four out of five times. Gun use also explains some of the gender differences of suicide attempts vs. suicide completions: “…women are roughly three times more likely to attempt suicide, though men are around three times more likely to die from suicide.” This is, at least in part, because men are more likely to use a firearm.

While the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that there is a problem, how we address that issue is something else entirely. Like it or not, guns are overwhelmingly pervasive in America, and basic gun ownership is legally protected. Furthermore, it can be difficult for someone who favors gun control methods to advocate for reducing gun-related suicides without seeming like you are actually advocating for more gun control and to take away guns from law abiding citizens (trust me on this – I’ve run into the issue many times!). Any effort to reduce the access of suicidal people to guns has to be balanced with already existing legal protections.

So, what can we do? Many states have enacted so-called “red flag laws” which create a process by which guns can be temporarily removed from someone’s home if there is evidence which shows they can be a danger to themselves or others. Such laws can be effective in reducing suicide: According to a 2016 study of such laws in Connecticut and Indiana, “Indiana’s firearm seizure law was associated with a 7.5% reduction in firearm suicides in the ten years following its enactment, an effect specific to suicides with firearms and larger than that seen in any comparison state by chance alone. Enactment of Connecticut’s law was associated with a 1.6% reduction in firearm suicides immediately after its passage and a 13.7% reduction in firearm suicides in the post–Virginia Tech period, when enforcement of the law substantially increased.”

That’s an amazing number. And that’s a real difference.

But it doesn’t just take a law or official government action to make an impact in this regards. Take New Hampshire, where the Gun Shop Project has encouraged New Hampshire firearms instructors to “show a video about suicide prevention in their classes.” That information, coming from peers, can be powerful. I hope that research is conducted on these efforts in the future.

We have to find a way of respecting the rights of gun owners while protecting those with mental health challenges, but I do have to think there is common ground here. It is my hope we can find that space.

4 thoughts on “Access to guns means higher rates of suicide. What we can do about it is a harder question.

  1. Although I can fully understand the statistics and your concerns I also relate strongly to the idea of personal freedom.

    I’m Australian and compared to the US it feels like our government are constantly making it harder to even own a gun at all. And yet the suicide statistics are still bad. Unfortunately people find other methods.

    My point is taking away guns doesn’t make sense to me. I manage major depression and have been suicidal at times. I understand the importance of removing the risk in safety planning (and we did this… Hubby locked medications etc away) but I found my brain finding alternatives and there are so many. Yes guns are easy and likely permanent but so are many other things we have no control over or ability to remove the risk of.

    Dealing with the underlying illness and getting people the support and care they need is key in my view.

    Speaking to WP bloggers from the US I have found out that our medical systems and support options are very different. Our access to Medicare for example is not perfect but at least it gives people on a low income some options for medical care.

    Then there are organisations like Beyondblue, SANE, The Black Dog Institute and Lifeline (to name a few) which offer so much support and can empower people to learn more about taking control of their own mental health. I am surprised that the US doesn’t have more organisations like these.

    I could have been a statistic. Had a violent and permanent plan that didn’t involve guns, even though I am a woman. What kept me alive was my husband’s insistence on finding me the medical attention I needed in time, and the care of my psychiatrist who Medicare help us to be able to afford via the Medicare Family Saftey Net.

    What can we do?

    Improve the support and medical system. Removing risks is a bandaid solution. Although… I do agree that education about gun saftey when unwell is very important. It is part of being a responsible gun owner to recognise when you should ask for help to limit your own access until you are recieving medical care.

    Thank you for your important post and for allowing me the space to waffle.



    1. And they say that the internet is filled with bad comments! Thank you for your thoughtful response!

      I think your story cuts against the grain – but, sadly, it also reveals a truth. Nothing is more important than access to medical care. However, means reduction is important. In the most terrible, dark depression for some, they may have ended their lives with easier means to commit suicide. That’s why I do think that these issues are so important.

      Thank you so much for your comment – and for sharing your story. Waffling isn’t a bad thing – it’s a sign of thoughtfulness! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the reassurance and kind reply.

        I suspect my differing view of means reduction might relate to the differences in gun control between our countries. We have strong rules and regulations about access to weapons and storage (not only of guns but ammunition also) so I do wonder whether I can truly relate to living in the US and being suicidal.

        Would targeting safer storage be perhaps be a less threatening idea to personal freedoms than limiting access altogether?


      2. Yes. There’s no question about that, actually. Safe storage reduces means. It reduces impulse. That can make a big difference.

        Liked by 1 person

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