Guns and the suicide epidemic

April 16, 2018

Emma Wilde Botta contributes to the discussion on gun violence with an analysis of the role of guns in the growing number of suicides taking place in the U.S.

THE TRAGIC Parkland mass shooting in February reopened discussion and debate on the nature of gun violence in the U.S. and what it will take to see fewer deaths. I welcome this important conversation and believe the recent articles in Socialist Worker have moved us closer to a fuller and deeper understanding of this multifaceted issue.

About 35,000 people are killed by guns every year in the U.S. Mass shootings represent a minority of these deaths. According to the Gun Violence Archive, in 2017, there were 346 mass shootings (broadly defined as a shooting in which four or more people were shot but did not necessarily die) and 437 resulting deaths. In 2017, police killed an estimated 1,100 people.

Gun homicides account for nearly 13,000 deaths annually. More than two in three gun deaths per year are the result of suicide.

I would like to offer some thoughts on suicide, the leading cause of gun deaths in the U.S. This aspect of gun violence has been highlighted in recent Socialist Worker articles, and I believe it warrants further attention. In this article, which is by no means comprehensive, I give an epidemiological overview of suicide and suggest some measures to curb this epidemic.

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IN 2015, an estimated 44,193 people died by suicide in the U.S., with 22,018 of these deaths involving a gun. That's an average of 121 deaths by suicide every day.

Suicidal acts are often prompted by a temporary rush of rage or despair, and most people who attempt them do not die. For every suicide, there are about 25 attempts that do not end in death.

Guns are especially dangerous because they are more lethal than other means by which people attempt suicide, and because people often attempt to take their own lives shortly after deciding to die.

Though guns are not the most common method by which people attempt suicide, they are the most lethal. About 85 percent of suicide attempts with a gun end in death. Among people who survived attempts, 24 percent took less than five minutes between the making the decision to die and the actual attempt, and 70 percent took less than an hour. Most people who are feeling suicidal will not choose another method if their preferred method is not at hand.

Though the act of suicide is often impulsive, most people do not experience suicidal ideation spontaneously, meaning that most people think about dying before acting on that idea.

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Contemplating suicide is a relatively common phenomenon. The 2015 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that 17.7 percent--over one in six--high school students had seriously considered taking their own life in the past year. Most people who experience suicidal ideation do not go on to attempt suicide.

THE NATIONAL Center for Health Statistics released a study in 2016 that examined suicide trends from 1999 to 2014.

The study showed that overall suicide rate rose by 24 percent in these 15 years, putting suicide rates at their highest in nearly 30 years. Almost every age group saw an increase except people over the age of 75, who already have some of the highest suicide rates). A substantial increase occurred among middle-aged white people.

Native Americans saw a horrifying 89 percent increase for women and 38 percent increase for men, the sharpest rise among all racial and ethnic groups.

Since 1999, the rate of suicide by gun has decreased--from 37 percent of suicides by women to 31 percent today, and from 62 percent to 55 percent for men--though the overall number of gun suicides has increased.

Suicide takes a disproportionate toll on oppressed people. In contrast to the general population, Native Americans face high suicide rates among young people ages 15 to 24. A 2015 CDC report confirmed what Native health experts have been saying for years: Suicide among Native youth is an overlooked crisis.

LGBT people are disproportionately impacted by suicide. A study of specifically lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) teens and young adults found higher rates of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.

Social attitudes impact risk. Those who attempt suicide are more likely to have experienced family rejection than those who did not. A 2007 study of 55 transgender youth found that nearly half had seriously considered suicide and one in four reported having made a suicide attempt.

Decades of imperialist wars have left millions of U.S. veterans traumatized. In 2014, an average of 22 veterans died by suicide every day. Guns are the most common means for suicide among veterans. Though the percentage of suicide by gun decreased among civilians from 2001 to 2014, it remained stable among veterans.

Many explanations for the general increase in suicide rates in U.S. society have been put forward. One study looked at recessions from 1928 to 2007 and found an association between suicide rates and economic downturns, with rates highest when the economy was weak. Another study found a link between suicide among middle-aged people and rising rates of distress about jobs and personal finances.

Guns, racism and other forms of oppression, neoliberalism, unsatisfactory social relations, ongoing wars: All are components of the suicide epidemic.

WHAT CAN be done to prevent these deaths?

Indisputably, access to guns increases suicide risk by making it more likely that suicide attempts will involve guns and prove fatal. Serious attempts to slow down or prevent access to deadly means can keep people in crisis alive.

The most famous natural experiment of means restriction occurred in Britain. In the 1950s, almost half of all suicides were the result of domestic poisoning with gas used in ovens and heaters. The discovery of less toxic gas meant the detoxification of domestic gas. Rates of suicide by gas fell to essentially zero by 1977.

Exactly how to apply means restriction to the current situation in the U.S. is a matter of great debate. Though worthy demands for other reasons, however, bans on assault rifles or bump stocks are unlikely to address suicide, since most suicides by gun involve handguns.

National standards around gun safety training and safe storage, free lock boxes and waiting periods are all possible restriction measures. Keeping a gun locked and unloaded, and storing a gun separate from ammunition can reduce the likelihood of a suicide attempt by children and teens, and adults as well. Gun waiting periods that mandate time between initiating the purchase of a gun and completing that purchase have also been shown to reduce suicide.

It is important to recognize that gun reforms can take a reactionary turn when efforts focus on mental illness as the cause of gun violence.

Keith Rosenthal correctly pointed out in a recent Readers' View at Socialist Worker article that psychiatric policing won't stop gun violence, and we should oppose demands to restrict the ability of people with mental illness to purchase guns.

Similarly, proposed legislation to strip people with psychiatric disabilities of HIPAA privacy protection would not keep people safer and opens the door to more law enforcement involvement. Police confrontations with people experiencing mental health issues are often lethal, as the recent police killing of Saheed Vassell illustrates.

PEOPLE THINKING about suicide need resources and support.

A universal single-payer health care system, like Medicare for All, would set the foundation for adequate access to mental health care and substance use treatment. Increased funding for suicide crisis hotlines--many of which rely on volunteer labor--and suicide prevention trainings in schools and workplaces would be a step forward as well.

Lastly, we can't underestimate the role of social movements that challenge reactionary ideas and offer a different vision of human worth and dignity.

A 2017 study in found that suicide attempts specifically by lesbian, gay and bisexual high school students fell by 14 percent in states that legalized same-sex marriage, compared to no change in states that did not legalize same-sex marriage.

In Native communities, oppression and dispossession have resulted in a severe lack of affordable housing, health care, jobs, and adequate schools.

In an article for Socialist Worker in 2016, Ragina Johnson and Brian Ward reported on a nine-day occupation of the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada office led by First Nations, Idle No More and Black Lives Matter activists. This action was meant to shed light on the sharp increase of suicide attempts in Attawapiskat and First Nation communities.

The social and economic crisis has created the material conditions that have caused suicide rates to rise over the past decade. Neoliberal policies have shredded the social safety net, leaving people in greater misery. Demands for better material conditions for communities facing substandard housing, schools and health care are linked to suicide prevention.

Ultimately, we want a world where people feel their lives are worth living and where support is available to those who are struggling. In order to realize this world, we need to continue the fight against a system that privileges profit over human need and breeds oppression.

Further Reading

From the archives