#24: Guns & Suicide

Table of Contents:

Guns & Suicide
Suicide Defined
Suicide and Gun Control
The Intersection Between Guns and Suicide
Disparities Across Demographics
American Violence
Homicide v. Suicide
Gun Availability & Suicide
Impulsive Acts—Transient Life Crises
First-time Gun Owners & Suicide
Saving Lives From Gun Suicide—Confronting the Inevitability Myth
Hard Facts & Hard Truths


Guns & Suicide

Guns are a way of life in Twenty-First Century America. As an abstract proposition, that’s neither good nor bad, neither for nor against. An abstract proposition is impalpable, imperceptible, intangible, and almost invisible. Tragically, the connection between guns and suicide is the mirror opposite; palpable, actual, factual, observable, painful, and found everywhere. To borrow a metaphor from Forrest Gump, suicide is as suicide does.

Guns are explainable. Suicide is not. Suicidology is the scientific study of suicidal behavior, the causes of suicidalness and suicide prevention. There are many different fields and disciplines involved with suicidology, the two primary ones being psychology and sociology. Every year, about one million people die by suicide, which is a mortality rate of sixteen per 100,000 or one death every forty seconds. Half of all suicides occur with a firearm.[1]

Suicide is largely preventable with the right actions, knowledge about suicide, and a change in society’s view of suicide to make it more acceptable to talk about suicide.[2] Reasonable gun control could be part of answer to America’s ever-increasing suicide by gun reality. But that is another abstract proposition.

Suicide Defined

One of the first scholars to study suicidology is Edwin S. Shneidman.[3] He’s considered the father of suicidology. Shneidman’s definition of suicide is a conscious act of self-induced annihilation, best understood as a multidimensional malaise in a needful individual who defines an issue for which suicide is perceived as the best solution. He thought of suicide as psychache or intolerable psychological pain. Dr. David J. Mayo defined four elements: 1. A suicide has taken place only if a death has occurred. 2. The death must be of one’s own doing. 3. The agency of suicide can be active or passive. 4. It implies intentionally ending one’s own life.[4]

Suicide and Gun Control

There is a fatal link between guns and suicide. “In the United States, suicides outnumber homicides almost two to one. Perhaps the real tragedy behind suicide deaths—about 30,000 a year, one for every 45 attempts—is that so many could be prevented. Research shows that whether attempters live or die depends in large part on the ready availability of highly lethal means, especially firearms. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health of all 50 U.S. states confirms the link between rates of firearm ownership and suicides. They found that in states where guns were prevalent—as in Wyoming, where 63 percent of households reported owning guns—rates of suicide were higher. The inverse was also true: where gun ownership was less common, suicide rates were also lower.[5]

In 2019, the most recent year of data available, 23,941 Americans died by firearm suicide. In the past decade, 220,000 Americans committed suicide by gun. This is almost twice as many Americans as were killed in World War I. Suicides make up three in every five gun deaths. The firearm suicide rate in America is eight times higher than in other industrialized countries.[6]

The Intersection Between Guns and Suicide

Studies consistently show that access to firearms increases the risk of suicide more than three-fold. Firearms are the most lethal suicide attempt method.[7] “Temporarily reducing access to lethal means — putting time and space between someone who may attempt suicide and lethal means, specifically firearms — makes it more likely they will survive a suicide attempt. Though a person may consider suicide for a long time suicidal crises peak relatively quickly for many people. Given the lethality of firearms, access to firearms during that high-risk time period is a key factor in whether or not a person will survive.”[8]

While having a gun does not make a person more suicidal, access to guns increases the risk that an individual will die by suicide if they attempt. Suicide attempts with firearms are nearly always lethal, whereas attempts with the other most commonly used methods are lethal less than 2% of the time.[9]

Disparities Across Demographics

While females are more likely than males to attempt suicide, males are more likely to die by suicide. On average, for every female who dies by firearm suicide, at least six males die by firearm suicide. Across all racial and ethnic backgrounds, males have higher rates of firearm suicide and suicide overall. Suicide attempts among males are eight times more likely to involve firearms than attempts among females. On average, 56% of suicide deaths among males are by firearm, whereas 31% of suicides among females are by firearm. Overall, firearm suicide rates are highest among White people, followed by American Indian/Alaska Native people.[10]

Firearm suicide risk is highest among people age seventy-five and older across the population as a whole, but that is primarily due to the very high rate of suicide among White males in that age group. Firearm suicide rates peak at younger ages for other demographic groups. While the highest rates of firearm suicide among White and Hispanic/Latino males are among those 75+, the firearm suicide rates for other demographics (American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Black) are highest at ages 20-34.[11]

American Violence

United States Senator Chris Murphy (D. Connecticut) is a member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said, “The lion’s share of American violence is inflicted by an individual on himself. That violence takes many forms. Suicide is its lethal incarnation, but every day, millions of Americans cut themselves, starve themselves, drink themselves into unconsciousness, or knowingly inject potentially deadly foreign substances into their body. For all the deserved media attention on the times an individual ends the life of another, little is said when the target of a person’s violence is himself, a far more common occurrence. And we have not paid enough attention to the role guns play in America’s suicide crisis.”[12]

Homicide v. Suicide

In 2017, the American homicide rate was about 5.3 murders per 100,000 people. That year, the suicide rate was nearly three times higher—14 deaths per 100,000 people. Besides his article in The Atlantic, Senator Murphy wrote a book; The Violence Inside Us—A Brief History of an Ongoing American Tragedy.[13] He compared suicide raters against homicide rates.

“The American suicide rate, unlike the homicide rate, is less of a global outlier. Several other high-income nations, such as France, Switzerland, and Japan, have suicide rates higher than ours. The more troubling trend is that American suicides have increased by 30 percent since 2000—a jump not matched by other nations. Suicides in America are increasing, but overall they are just not as uniquely an American problem as gun homicides are. There are, of course, other explanations for why the suicide problem is largely hidden from public discussion. For the overwhelming majority of Americans, who never experience suicidal thoughts, the threat of attack from another person is much scarier, and more likely, than the threat of self-harm. We obsess over homicides because we feel we have much less control over what another person may do to us than what we may do to ourselves. And the unfortunate shame that many families feel surrounding the suicide of a loved one drives the discussion around causes and interventions underground. Murder is public spectacle. Suicide is private tragedy. Both are often the result of too-easy access to guns.”[14]

Gun Availability & Suicide

Men who own handguns are eight times more likely to die of gun suicides than men who don’t own handguns. Women who own handguns are 35 times more likely to commit suicide than women who don’t. These elementary facts are conclusions drawn from a 2020 large-scale study by Stanford University.[15] “Our findings confirm what virtually every study that has investigated this question over the last 30 years has concluded: Ready access to a gun is a major risk factor for suicide. The study analyzed data on handgun acquisitions and deaths in a cohort of 26.3 million adult residents of California who had not previously owned handguns. The researchers followed the cohort from 2004 through 2016, and compared death rates among those who did and didn’t acquire handguns, with a particular focus on suicides by firearm versus other methods. More than 1.4 million cohort members died during the study period. Nearly 18,000 of them died by suicide, of which 6,691 were suicides by firearms.

Impulsive Acts—Transient Life Crises

The Stanford study recognized that suicide attempts are often impulsive acts, driven by transient life crises. “Most attempts are not fatal, and most people who attempt suicide do not go on to die in a future suicide. Whether a suicide attempt is fatal depends heavily on the lethality of the method used — and firearms are extremely lethal. These facts focus attention on firearm access as a risk factor for suicide especially in the United States, which has a higher prevalence of civilian-owned firearms than any other country and one of the highest rates of suicide by firearm.”[16]

Three out of every four of the 24,432 gun suicides in the United States in 2018 involved handguns. The Stanford researchers found, “people who owned handguns had rates of suicide that were nearly four times higher than people living in the same neighborhood who did not own handguns. The elevated risk was driven by higher rates of suicide by firearm. Handgun owners did not have higher rates of suicide by other methods or higher rates of death generally. The researchers said the very high risk of suicide for female handgun owners, relative to female non-owners, was particularly noteworthy. It has long been known that women attempt suicide more frequently than men do, but have fewer completed suicides. The standard explanation is that the methods women tend to use are less lethal than those men tend to use. However, the study showed that this is not true for female gun owners.

First-time Gun Owners & Suicide

The decision to buy a handgun for the first time is typically motivated by self-protection. “But it also raises the purchasers’ risk of deliberately shooting themselves by nine-fold on average, with the danger most acute in the weeks after purchase. The risk remains elevated for years. The findings are from the largest analysis to date tracking individual, first-time gun owners and suicide for more than a decade. The study, posted by The New England Journal of Medicine, does not greatly alter the prevailing understanding of suicide risk linked to gun ownership. Previous research had suggested a similarly increased risk, due largely to the ease of having such a lethal option at hand.”[17]

The study, as reported in the New York Times, tracked nearly 700,000 first-time handgun buyers, year by year, and compared them with similar non-owners, breaking out risk by gender. Men who bought a gun for the first time were eight times as likely to kill themselves by gunshot in the subsequent twelve years than non-owners; women were 35 times as likely to do so. Male gun owners far outnumbered women owners in the study.[18]

Saving Lives From Gun Suicide—Confronting the Inevitability Myth

The Giffords Law Center is at the center of gun suicide, pun intended. “Though we are living in a time of rising suicide rates, many Americans, including our lawmakers, buy into the pervasive myth that suicides are inevitable. Confronting the Inevitability Myth thoroughly debunks this misconception by arming readers with data and research from across the field showing how gun access drives suicide risk in this country and, consequently, how effective gun policy and intervention programs can save more lives. A data supplement within the report takes an even deeper dive to show just how significantly guns contribute to state suicide rates: compared to all other variables, including race, gender, rurality, substance abuse, and severe mental illness, gun access correlates the most with suicide death.”[19]

Confronting the Inevitability Myth outlines six essential policy solutions that work to prevent suicide by reducing people’s access to guns during a suicidal crisis:

  1. Universal background checks help to keep severely suicidal people from acquiring guns after they have been involuntarily committed for their own safety.
  2. Extreme Risk Protection Order laws empower family members to proactively protect their loved ones by petitioning a court to temporarily remove guns during a severe mental health crisis.
  3. Voluntary gun relinquishment laws could help empower suicidal people to act to promote their own health and safety by limiting their access to guns during mental crises.
  4. Firearm waiting periods provide a brief but crucial cooling off period to guard against impulsive, suicidal gun purchases.
  5. Smart guns, safety training, and safe storage laws help keep children and teens from gaining unsupervised access to guns can meaningfully reduce youth suicide.
  6. Healthcare-based suicide prevention programs have shown that medical professionals make a remarkable difference in reducing their patients’ risk of suicide if they have the training, freedom, and support to effectively counsel their patients about gun safety

Hard Facts & Hard Truths

Of all the many gun violence issues in America, the truth connecting gun access to suicide may be the hardest to take. Here’s the truth, “States with Lower Gun Ownership and Stronger Gun Laws Have Lowest Suicide Rates.”[20] No one contests this truth. The gun industry knows it—tens of thousands of families know it, every year. The Violence Policy Center is a national educational organization working to stop gun death and injury. Its September, 2021 report is hard to take but easy to understand.

“The state with the lowest overall suicide rate in 2019 was New Jersey (8.58 suicides per 100,000 residents) with a gun suicide rate of 1.95 gun suicides per 100,000 residents. New York ranked second lowest (overall suicide rate of 8.76 suicides per 100,000 residents) with a gun suicide rate of 2.34 gun suicides per 100,000 residents. Massachusetts ranked third lowest (overall suicide rate of 9.39 suicides per 100,000 residents) with a gun suicide rate of 2.06 gun suicides per 100,000 residents. In each of these three states guns were used in 27 percent or fewer of the suicides reported that year and all had a household gun ownership rate below 21 percent. Compared to the three states with the highest suicide rates, each of these states has stronger gun violence prevention laws.

The state with the highest overall suicide rate in the nation in 2019 was Wyoming (29.37 suicides per 100,000 residents), which also had the highest gun suicide rate (19.70 gun suicides per 100,000 residents). Alaska ranked second (28.71 suicides per 100,000 residents) and had the third highest gun suicide rate (15.99 gun suicides per 100,000 residents). Montana ranked third (27.04 suicides per 100,000 residents) and had the second highest gun suicide rate (16.09 gun suicides per 100,000 residents). In each of these three states guns were used in 56 percent or more of the suicides reported that year and all had a household gun ownership rate above 54 percent. Compared to the states w VPC Executive Director Josh Sugarmann states, “Suicide is the most common type of gun death in America and the use of a firearm is a key factor in whether a suicide attempt is completed or not. There are more suicides where there are more guns. Understanding this relationship can help inform effective suicide prevention strategies.”[21]

The nexus between guns and suicide is simple. Guns don’t kill people. Gun owners kill people. That’s the easiest truth and the hardest to deny.


[1] https://afsp.org/firearms-and-suicide-prevention

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicidology

[3] “Edwin S. Shneidman (May 13, 1918 – May 15, 2009) was an American clinical psychologist, suicidologist and thanatologist. Together with Norman Farberow and Robert Litman, in 1958, he founded the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center, where the men were instrumental in researching suicide and developing a crisis center and treatments to prevent deaths. In 1968, Shneidman founded the American Association of Suicidology and the principal United States journal for suicide studies, Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior. In 1970, he became Professor of Thanatology at the University of California, where he taught for decades. He published 20 books on suicide and its prevention.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_S._Shneidman

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicidology

[5] https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/magazine/guns-and-suicide/

[6] https://efsgv.org/firearm-suicide/

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Connor, A; Azreal, D. & Miller, M., “Suicide Case-Fatality Rates in the United States—2007 to 2014. Annals Of Medicine.

[10] https://efsgv.org/firearm-suicide/

[11] Ibid.

[12] https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/09/gun-control-key-addressing-americas-suicide-crisis/615889/

[13] https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781984854575

[14] Ibid.

[15] https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2020/06/handgun-ownership-associated-with-much-higher-suicide-risk.html

[16] Ibid.

[17] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/03/health/suicide-guns-firearms.html

[18] Ibid.

[19] https://giffords.org/lawcenter/report/report-on-gun-suicide-confronting-the-inevitability-myth/

[20] https://vpc.org/press/states-with-lower-gun-ownership-and-stronger-gun-laws-have-lowest-suicide-rates/

[21] Ibid.

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