Suicides don’t get as much media attention as homicides, but they account for nearly two thirds of the 33,000 gun fatalities every year. Research suggests that many gun suicide deaths may be preventable: Firearms are incredibly lethal, compared to other methods, and people who survive an attempt rarely try again. In states where gun ownership rates are the lowest, so are suicide rates. In Connecticut, a law that allows judges to order police to remove guns from homes of people deemed to pose a high risk of harming themselves or others prevented an estimated 100 suicides, a recent study concluded.
These are among the critical facts we’ve learned about the relationship between guns and suicide from our reporting, and from journalists whose work we admire. September is National Suicide Prevention Month, so we feel it is an appropriate time to share some of this work, which shatters longstanding fallacies about firearm suicide and uncovers important truths about the demographics most at risk.
Firearms are an irreversible solution to an often impulsive decision.
“Guns and Suicide: The Hidden Toll,” Madeline Drexler, Harvard Public Health, Winter 2013.
This sweeping analysis of guns and suicide revealed that the methods by which people attempt suicide play a key role in determining whether they will live or die. Suicides are thought to be planned out, when, in fact, most suicidal individuals act in a moment of brief, but heightened, vulnerability. When people in this state have easy access to an instrument as lethal as a gun, they are more likely to shoot themselves than they would otherwise, and far more likely to die. With these facts, one begins to view gun suicides not as inevitabilities that can’t be remedied, but, in at least some instances, as preventable tragedies.
It’s a common viewpoint that suicide is ultimately someone’s choice. But suicide is the terminal stage of a disease — one that can be treated.
“Most gun deaths are suicides, not homicides. That’s a strong case for gun control,” Dylan Matthews, Vox.com, June 3, 2015
Matthews puts forth a powerful argument against the widespread idea that suicide is morally unworthy of prevention efforts. If suicide by firearm claims the life of someone suffering from mental illness, he reasons, it does not mean the victim deserved it. “Depression is a liar intent on convincing you it’ll never leave,” Matthews writes, sharing his own experience with suicidal ideation during his senior year of college. After he admitted to his roommate that planned to kill himself, he began seeing a psychiatrist once a week at his roommate’s urging. It was an intervention that kept him from ending his life. Gun restrictions, Matthews concludes, can be a different kind of intervention, one that stops mental illness from making irreversible decisions on someone’s behalf.
Temporarily removing someone’s firearms during times of personal crisis may save more lives than new gun access laws.
“Surviving Suicide In Wyoming,” Anna Maria Barry-Jester, FiveThirtyEight, July 13, 2016
This piece, part of a larger series on gun deaths in America, uses a rancher’s crippling depression and recovery to demonstrate how community interventions, rather than legislative fixes, can save lives. In the Mountain West, where middle-aged white men are the Americans at the highest risk for suicide, Kenny Michelena, 58, was diagnosed with a painful genetic condition in 2014 that prevented him from working, triggering financial and familial stress. Before long, he told his therapist that he’d begun to consider using one of his twelve guns to take his own life. The therapist called the local sheriff, who moved Michelena’s firearms to his brother’s house. Michelena admitted that it was hard for him to accept that he wasn’t safe around his guns. But that brief intervention likely saved his life.
Suicide is the leading cause of death among military veterans, but they don’t get much support from government agencies.
“In a Unit Stalked by Suicide, Veterans Try to Save One Another,” Dave Philipps, New York Times, September 19, 2015
With few official avenues available, combat veterans in one military community took it upon themselves to separate their mentally-ill brethren from the firearms that could end their lives. Philipps follows the story of a Marine battalion that lost 13 soldiers to suicide since they returned home from Afghanistan in 2008. Nine of them took their lives with guns. In the absence of support from the top levels of government — the Department of Veterans Affairs does not track suicide trends among veterans of specific units, and the Marine Corps does not track suicides of former service members at all — the surviving veterans of the battalion formed a mental health triage team. In one case, a veteran drove 90 miles to counsel a suicidal vet, took his rifle for safekeeping, and stayed until paramedics and the police arrived.
If a gun is not available, a suicidal person probably won’t find another way to kill themselves.
“A Psychiatrist Debunks the Biggest Myths Surrounding Gun Suicides,” Kate Masters, The Trace, November 2, 2015
Liza Gold, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, explains in this Q+A that there is not a lot of evidence to support “means substitution” — the idea that someone who fails to obtain a gun to kill themselves will use another method.
Instead, research suggests that for every step placed between somebody and a gun, suicide and injury rates decrease. If someone keeps a gun in their house but it’s not loaded, that reduces the rate of suicide by 10 percent. If someone keeps it locked up and unloaded, that’s another 10 percent, and there’s another 10 percent reduction if they keep it locked and unloaded and store the ammunition somewhere else. “If you prolong the time that it takes someone to kill themselves,” Gold explains, “there’s more time for them to change their minds.”
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. It is available 24 hours a day.