Magazine article Newsweek

America's Biggest Gun Problem Is Suicide; No One Talks about It, but Most Victims of Firearm Violence Are Those Who Shoot Themselves

Magazine article Newsweek

America's Biggest Gun Problem Is Suicide; No One Talks about It, but Most Victims of Firearm Violence Are Those Who Shoot Themselves

Article excerpt

Byline: Mike Mariani

On June 17, after sitting quietly through a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, 21-year-old Dylann Roof allegedly opened fire on parishioners with a .45-caliber handgun, killing nine. It was another devastating rampage--one that would be followed by shootings in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Lafayette, Louisiana; and Moneta, Virginia--in what has begun to feel like a grievous and regular ritual.

These types of catastrophic events can warp our view of what gun violence in the U.S. really looks like. The five deadliest U.S. mass shootings of the 21st century--Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Fort Hood, Binghamton and the Washington Navy Yard--resulted in 101 deaths combined. In 2012 (the most recent year for which there is solid data), 32,288 people died from gunshot wounds in the United States. According to research published this year in the Annual Review of Public Health, suicides accounted for 64 percent of those deaths. We may have cut down murders in this country over the past two decades, but gun violence has not abated so much as it has evolved into a more insidious form.

The media, however, miss the trend entirely. In 2013, Slate and Twitter user @GunDeaths collaborated on the Gun Deaths Project, an ambitious (though short-lived) attempt to track down every news report of fatal gun violence in America. Perhaps the project's most trenchant discovery came not from what they found, but what they didn't. By the end of the year, Slate realized it was capturing only one-third of all gun deaths; it had recorded around 11,400 deaths, while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports roughly 32,000 every year. The missing 20,000 deaths? Almost all suicides.

Related: America and Gun Violence: A History in 13 Covers

There's a culture of euphemism in obituaries involving gun suicide; "died suddenly," "died at home" and "passed unexpectedly" are all used to cover an ugly fact. This systemic aversion to the topic has made it difficult for the general population to understand how suicide and gun ownership overlap, and enables firearm suicide to flourish in darkness.

For example, it's rarely something people consider when contemplating why someone took his own life; we don't say "he owned a gun" the way we cite things like clinical depression, financial woes and drug problems--but we probably should. Evidence suggests guns are not just a means of executing a hard and fast decision to kill oneself; they are a risk factor that should be considered alongside mental illness, substance abuse and family history.

David Hemenway, a professor of health policy and the director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center (HICRC), has studied firearm violence and the relationship between guns and suicide in the U.S. for 15 years. In that time, he has amassed an abundance of statistical evidence indicating that access to guns increases the chances of suicide. "Why does Arizona have more suicides than Massachusetts?" he asks. "Is it mental health, is it diet, or is it alcohol or smoking, or is it depression?" It's none of those. The one thing that explains different rates of suicide across regions, states and even cities is simple: guns.

In a study published in 2008 in the New England Journal of Medicine, Hemenway and his co-authors found that men were 3.7 times more likely to die by gun suicide in the 15 states with the highest rates of gun ownership compared to the six states with the lowest. Women in the states with the highest gun ownership were 7.9 times more likely to kill themselves with a firearm. And in a 2014 paper published in the International Review of Law and Economics, Justin Briggs and Alexander Tabarrok found that for every 1 percentage point increase in household gun ownership, suicide rates go up between 0.5 and 0.9 percent. The Briggs-Tabarrok effect, as it became known, starkly illustrates how in America having more guns leads to more suicides. …

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