It’s Time to Talk about Guns and Suicide Prevention
America’s rising suicide death rates are being overlooked. So is the role of firearms.
For too long, stigma and false narratives about suicide have hindered important discussions on solutions to the problem.
But September is Suicide Awareness Month, giving us a crucial opportunity to talk about the fact that suicide rates are rising across the United States, with over half a million Americans dying by suicide between 2008 and 2019.
That number doesn’t include the many individuals who attempt suicide and survive or the loved ones impacted by suicide. In 2016, 51% of Americans knew at least one person who died by suicide and more than one-third of Americans report that they have been significantly personally impacted by another person’s suicide. But it doesn’t have to be like this.
America’s suicide problem is largely a gun problem
Firearms account for over 50% of suicide deaths. Guns are incredibly easy to access and acquire: there are more guns than people in this country. Guns are also highly lethal; individuals who use guns to attempt suicide are far less likely to survive than those who use other means.
Guns are the most common method of suicide
Firearms are used in more than 50% of suicide deaths in the United States, making guns the most common method used in suicide deaths.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS), “Fatal Injury Reports,” last accessed June 29, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars. Calculations were based on five years of most recently available data: 2014 to 2018.
States with high gun ownership rates tend to have much higher rates of firearm suicides. But even modest gun policy reforms can help save many people’s lives during periods of mental crisis by preventing people at highest risk from gaining immediate unrestricted access to the most lethal means of suicide.
The NRA has often claimed that suicide has nothing to do with guns, and that individuals who don’t have access to guns would simply attempt suicide with another means. But thankfully, the data shows that’s not the case.
We can prevent suicide and save lives
Contrary to gun lobby messaging, suicide is preventable. When someone attempts suicide, it is often an impulsive decision brought on by acute mental distress. But many people who attempt suicide act to reverse the suicide attempt or seek help, and 70% of people who survive a suicide attempt do not attempt again.
America’s suicide problem is a gun problem: the majority of American suicide deaths involve firearms. But these tragedies are preventable.
This change of heart is important because it highlights exactly why guns are so dangerous in suicide attempts. People often don’t survive a suicide attempt using a gun; in fact, 83% of people who use a firearm to attempt suicide die in that attempt.
The lethality of guns takes away an individual’s chance to change their mind. And easy access to guns removes a vital, lifesaving factor: time. Over half of people attempt suicide within 20 minutes of deciding to do so. Increasing the time that an individual has to change their mind or for another person to intervene can make a world of difference.
Gun safety regulations are a suicide prevention strategy
The gun lobby promotes an all-or-nothing narrative, claiming that safer gun regulations are a slippery slope that will lead to gun registration and then confiscation. But Giffords promotes targeted solutions that have been proven to save lives.
- Universal background checks help to ensure that some people with the most significant histories of suicidal behavior, such as those who have been involuntarily hospitalized by a court for their own safety, can’t acquire firearms.
- Child access prevention laws,safe storage laws, and smart gun technology can help prevent firearms from being accessed by children and teens, as well as household members undergoing mental crises. Child access prevention and safe storage laws require adults to safely secure their firearms when not in use. Novel smart gun technologies, like fingerprint recognition devices, help gun owners ensure that the firearm can only be fired by specifically authorized users.
- Mandatory waiting periods require sellers to wait a certain number of days before actually giving the gun to the purchaser. This provides individuals experiencing suicidal crisis with a crucial window of time to change their minds and seek help.
- Extreme risk protection orders allow family members and sometimes law enforcement to petition a judge to remove an individual’s access to gun if they’re at elevated risk of harming themselves or others.
- Voluntary relinquishment efforts help individuals who know they’re at high risk of suicide to temporarily leave their firearms with a loved one or law enforcement.
- Protecting doctors’ rights to discuss gun safety with patients is critical: research has found that advice on safe gun storage from doctors prompted nearly two-thirds of patients to improve their storage practices. Yet despite these proven, lifesaving benefits, the NRA has sought to pass dangerous “medical gag laws” that would prohibit healthcare providers from asking about gun access in the home.
Too many people die from a problem that is preventable, a problem that we already have targeted solutions for. Gun safety laws can help protect people during moments of crisis and keep more Americans alive.
This Suicide Awareness Month, join us in honoring those we’ve lost and advocating for safer gun laws that protect and save people’s lives.
SUPPORT GUN SAFETY
We’re in this together. To build a safer America—one where children and parents in every neighborhood can learn, play, work, and worship without fear of gun violence—we need you standing beside us in this fight.