The general public recognizes the obvious danger that guns play in the commission of murders. But the more common threat from guns lies not in causing homicides but suicides. Suicides by gun account for far more deaths than homicides by gun, and many studies show that where there are higher rates of gun ownership, there tend to be higher suicide rates.
Maine and the country cannot forget the enormous toll that suicides take on families, friends and communities.
The correlation between gun ownership and suicide rates is one more reason why gun owners should take precautions to ensure the safety of their friends and family by keeping their guns locked away or stored outside the home. It’s also why health care providers should treat not only the patient’s psychological condition but work with loved ones to limit the patient’s access to lethal means.
There’s no good way for family and friends to describe the sorrow and horror they feel when their loved one is killed, whether it’s a homicide or suicide. But the reality is that suicides outnumber homicides in the United States two to one, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicides are rarely reported in the media unless they happen publicly — because doing so can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals — so people are more likely to read about homicides or murder-suicides.
But suicide is a public health problem. It is the 10th leading cause of death for people ages 10 and older, killing more than 35,000 per year, or about 12 per 100,000 people. More men than women die by suicide, and men are more likely to use a gun, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Though firearms are used in only about 5 percent of suicide attempts, they cause more than half the deaths.
Reducing the number of attempts with a gun could save many more lives — not because the underlying impulse changes but because the lethality of the attempts is reduced. A gunshot is usually final. Other means, like cutting or overdosing, give people more time to think and call for help, and they often prove less deadly.
Some people believe that individuals truly serious about killing themselves will do it whether a gun is available or not. In some cases this is true. But many people who attempt suicide — though there may be many warning signs — commit the act in moments of despair. If only they wait, their crisis may pass and they may seek help. Most who attempt suicide do not die; for every suicide death, there are an estimated 11 nonfatal suicide attempts.
People often ask “why” in the context of suicides, but “how” is of importance, too. Many studies have examined the link between rates of household gun ownership and rates of completed suicide. A study published in 2008 in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at the relationship in every state, while controlling for poverty, urbanization, unemployment, mental illness and drug and alcohol dependence. It found that states with higher rates of gun ownership had higher rates of suicides caused by firearms, in addition to overall suicides.
For instance, Maine ranked 25th for gun prevalence and 27th in terms of the median rate of suicide deaths. Wyoming had the greatest gun prevalence and was ranked second for suicide deaths. Research shows that whether someone lives or dies in a suicide attempt depends largely on the availability of lethal means, which includes firearms.
Gun owners need to be aware of the risks and know how to store guns and ammunition — in separate areas under separate locks. Gun store owners can communicate with one another and police when a despondent customer tries to purchase a gun. Counselors can know how to ask about guns in a patient’s home and work with family to reduce access. The overall goal should be to limit lethality. In the end, what if it isn’t the gun purchaser who faces the risk of suicide but his or her teenage children?