What do you want to know about guns or gun violence? Ask The Trace is a project driven by the curiosity of readers like you. You can read all the articles in the series here, and submit your own questions here.
Here at Ask The Trace, we’ve tended to avoid questions that are overtly political. But for this edition, we’re going to engage with one such query, because it touches on a fault line in our country’s conversation around guns.
Here’s the question, submitted by a reader named Tim: Why is the U.S. the only country to count suicide by gun as gun violence? Could it be only to inflate the gun violence numbers?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 39,707 gun deaths in the United States in 2019, the most recent year data is available. Sixty percent — or about two out of three — were suicides.
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America has the highest gun suicide rate of any country on earth. Its gun homicide rate, meanwhile, ranks about 30th.
As Tim’s question suggests, some people, often gun-rights advocates, wonder if including suicides under the umbrella of “gun violence” is disingenuous. Suicide is a solitary act, this argument asserts, and not the culmination of a conflict between people. Some gun-rights advocates also balk when lawmakers use the annual gun death count to push for policies, like bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, that aren’t necessarily aimed at reducing suicide. (Research indicates that red flag laws and waiting periods are more effective at reducing firearm suicide.)
Meanwhile, gun reform advocates argue that gunshot wounds do the same damage regardless of intent, and for that reason suicide cannot be separated from the nation’s gun death toll.
When it comes to the data, public health officials and academics are pretty specific in the way they describe shootings. The CDC defines “firearm violence” as shootings that are self-inflicted; unintentional; the result of interpersonal violence; and officer-involved. WISQARS, the CDC’s fatal injury database, allows people to filter cause-of-death data by “cause or mechanism of the injury” and includes “firearms” as an option. The resulting report is headlined simply “Firearm Deaths and Rates.”
But is it true, as the reader suggests, that the U.S. is the only country to count suicide by gun as gun violence?
I surveyed a few of our economic peers as well as researchers and academics, and found that it’s not. Canada, for example, considers suicide by firearm to be gun violence and includes gun suicides in its firearm injury statistics, said a spokesperson for the country’s public safety agency.
“Certainly, firearm suicide is generally considered to be a ‘gun violence’ issue in Australia, the U.K., Canada, New Zealand, and in most European nations,” said Philip Alpers, a public health professor at the University of Sydney in Australia and director of GunPolicy.Org, a website that’s tracked global civilian gun ownership and deaths for nearly two decades.
Alpers and his fellow academics in Australia refer to gun suicides as gun violence and also “firearm-related violence.”
The reader is correct that suicides in several countries generally aren’t included in “gun violence” tolls provided in public health reports. But researchers told me that’s because overall gun death numbers are so much lower than in the U.S.
Australia and England report firearm offenses and firearm suicides in separate reports, for example. But both countries logged a combined 307 gun deaths in 2020 — that’s less than half as many as Chicago.
Alpers said that any separation between homicides and suicides “is an artificial one. This data split is often exploited by those who consider gun suicide to be less ‘violent’ or preventable. Or unavoidable.”
With suicide, some people argue, there is no danger from another person, and most gun owners in America are armed for the purpose of self-defense. Mark Bryant, the founder of Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks shootings in near-real-time, includes suicides in his gun violence death toll but acknowledges that difference. “The common thread is guns,” he said, “While you can say that that is not necessarily a conflict between two people — and that is correct — it’s still part of the gun zeitgeist.” He and his team also track unintentional shootings, which are not the result of a conflict between two people but still considered to be gun violence.
Bryant also points out that self-harm isn’t always a solitary act. “With suicides, we like to say nobody else was hurt, but a lot of suicides are murder-suicides,” he said. There were 570 murder-suicides in the United States in 2020, resulting in 703 murders and 570 suicides.
Bryant didn’t start including suicides in his gun violence toll until two years ago, mainly because he can’t track them in real time, as they often don’t make the news. (He instead relies on CDC estimates, updating the final figures when they’re released the following year.) The news media is reticent to report on suicides for fear of sparking a contagion effect; some outlets that do report on it don’t include specific methods for fear of possibly contributing to a reader’s suicidal ideation. Bryant said he was urged to highlight gun suicide statistics by suicide prevention advocates, who wanted to draw attention to the fact that firearms account for half of all suicides.
Cathy Barber, the founding director of Means Matter, a gun suicide prevention campaign at Harvard’s School of Public Health, backed that up. “People in the suicide prevention field began saying ‘hey folks, let’s not overlook the suicides. They’re the majority of gun deaths, after all.’” (The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the field’s leading advocacy group, declined to comment for this story.)
But even Barber, one of the foremost suicide experts in the country, feels that the term “gun violence” might be misleading. “I think most members of the public assume it refers to homicide and assault and not also to suicide or accidental gun deaths,” she said. “Personally, I’d use ‘firearm deaths and injuries,’ or, when talking about criminal acts, ‘firearm homicides, assaults and other gun crimes.’”
“Gun violence,” Bryant says, is still accurate when describing the damage bullets do to bodies — and families, and communities. “If you don’t think shooting yourself is gun violence, you need to take a strong hard look at the results of it,” he said. “And I’m not just talking about the splatter on the walls. I’m talking about the wives and the mothers and the children that experience the aftereffects of it. And there’s nothing not violent about that.”