The leading method of suicide in America is firearms. Here's how gun-control policies can help

Beth Greenfield
Senior Editor
Reducing someone's risk of suicide can sometimes be a simple as preventing them from having easy access to firearms. (Photo: Getty Images)

There’s a PSA video online that’s powerful in its seeming dichotomy: In it, a middle-aged man wearing safety glasses and earphones is firing a handgun at a shooting range. Then he stops, removes the glasses and headphones, and speaks directly to the camera.

“Last year I was at my lowest. Going through a pretty serious depression,” he says. “Couple friends of mine stopped by my house and said they were worried about me. Said they would feel a lot better if they could hold onto my firearms till things turned around.” Then he adds, “I think they saved my life.”

The moment, courtesy of the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition, is truly compelling, a reminder that while discussions of guns and policy almost always break down into contentious debates, there’s one subtopic on which all sides can seemingly agree: the relationship between firearms and suicide, and the great need to understand how gun safety and suicide awareness could save a person’s life.

“Reducing a suicidal person’s access to something that can easily kill them is the low-hanging fruit — it’s the easy stuff, helping them bide a bit more time,” says Catherine Barber, senior researcher and director of Means Matter, a project of the Harvard School of Public Health and result of a now-classic survey that found higher suicide rates in states where guns were prevalent.

As September is National Suicide Prevention Month, with National Suicide Prevention Week lasting through Sept. 14 — and as there are ongoing discussions of both state and nationwide “red flag” gun laws, which are heavily aimed at protecting unstable gun owners from themselves — it’s an important time to make connections between suicide and firearms.

By the numbers

That’s particularly true when examining the alarming statistics: Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and, on average, there are 129 suicides per day.

The leading means of suicide in the U.S. is firearms, with guns accounting for just over half (50.6 percent) of suicides, or about 61 deaths a day; that rate of firearm suicide is 10 times that of other high-income countries.

Gun suicides — claiming over 22,000 lives each year, including more than 1,000 children and teens — make up two thirds of all gun deaths in America. Firearms are the most lethal method of self-harm, with an approximate fatality rate of 85 percent, while less than five percent of people attempting suicide with other methods will actually die.

“Firearm suicide is a significant public health crisis in the U.S.,” notes a report on the topic from Everytown for Gun Safety. “Given the unique lethality of firearms as a means of suicide, policies and practices that limit or disrupt access to firearms have been shown to save lives.”

UT Suicide Prevention- Gun Range - from UT Suicide Prevention Coalition on Vimeo.

Education is key

The first step in addressing the risk of guns and suicide, notes Barber, is raising awareness — that having a firearm in a household is associated with an increased risk of suicide, particularly among youths; that proper safety storage can be lifesaving; and that sometimes, all it takes for someone to live through feeling suicidal is to wait it out — while having lethal weapons safely out of reach.

Luckily, the openness of various organizations to address the issues has improved dramatically since the Means Matter project launched in the early 2000s.

“Going back 15 years ago, suicide groups weren’t talking about guns and gun groups weren’t talking about suicide,” she says. “For suicide groups, it was too controversial. For gun groups it was just not on their radar.”

Now, it seems, most, if not all, suicide prevention organizations — not to mention gun groups, both pro and con — have a clear policy addressing gun safety.

“We’re stepping out of that two-sided arena, saying, ‘Let’s get together and learn from each other’s biases and blind spots,’” Barber says. “It’s not a debate, it’s a search… And we’ve got to take this out of a political context and just put it into a practical gun safety issue.”

What’s been helpful, she says, is to have suicide-safety talks come from “trusted messengers,” in the context of firearms classes, for example, and in the form of support from perhaps unexpected sources.

“We’ve had such a warm reception from local gun clubs, firearm instructors, gun shop owners and also local NRA chapters,” Barber says. She notes that Utah, specifically — a state in which suicides, according to a recent Harvard University study that was funded by state money, accounted for 85 percent of all 2,983 firearm fatalities from 2006 to 2015 — has been proactive. In another PSA from the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition, for example, Clark Aposhian, chair of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, leads a five-minute training on firearm suicide prevention.

“If you’re a gun owner like me, listen up,” he says. “Protecting your family involves more than keeping them safe from accident or attack.”

There’s safety in waiting

“We need to get the word out that a lot of times all it takes is time,” Barber says. “What people don’t realize is how, often when you’re in a suicidal crisis, it doesn’t last forever — and if you make it out alive, you might not have another crisis. There’s something about the nature of suicidality that it doesn’t necessary last forever.”

Research backs that up, including two 2017 studies that found, in adults, “suicidal ideation and its risk factors often vary considerably over a period as short as 4 to 8 hours.”

“So, somebody who is having intense desire to die at 8am, by 1 o’clock they’re essentially free from suicide risk,” Jonathan Singer, president of the American Association of Suicidology and an associate professor at Loyola University of Chicago School of Social Work. If you do not have access to lethal means in the moment, Singer notes, “it’s more likely that you will not do something to end your life.”

Steps that concerned friends and family can take include temporarily removing guns from people who are at risk, and storing firearms responsibly to prevent children and teens from accessing them. Means Matter has more detailed suggestions about how to help reduce someone’s access to a gun at a crucial time.

Graphic courtesy of the American Association of Suicidology.

The power of policy

Beyond taking personal actions, various policies — including permit-to-purchase and mandatory waiting periods — can help reduce the risk of firearm suicides. That’s because access to a gun increases the risk of suicide by three times.

“You’ve had more people come out lately and say, ‘I’m a military vet,’ or ‘I’m a hunter,’ and ‘I was suicidal, and if I would’ve had access to my firearm, I would’ve killed myself,’” says Singer.

According to research shared by Everytown, states that require a person to obtain a permit plus have a background check during the process of buying a gun — otherwise known as an enhanced background check law or a permit-to-purchase (PTP) — have been associated with a reduction in gun suicides.

Also being discussed across the nation right now, mainly in reaction to frequent mass shootings, is the idea of Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs), often referred to as “red flag” laws — an idea supported by Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) in a Sept. 12 New York Times Op-Ed.

“Extreme risk laws save lives from suicide by creating a tool to proactively intervene and keep those at risk of hurting themselves from accessing the most lethal means of suicide during desperate periods,” notes the Giffords Law Center.Narrower extreme risk laws in Connecticut and Indiana have been shown to be extremely effective at preventing firearm suicides.” For example, the site notes, for every 10 to 20 gun removals under those state’s such laws, one life was saved by averting a suicide — thereby reducing firearm suicide rates by 14 percent (in CT) and 7.5 percent (in Ind.).

“We always say that one life lost is too many,” Singer says. “If you can save that life, then it’s worth it.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Editor's note: In response to reader feedback and after careful consideration, the headline on this story was changed from "The leading cause of suicide in America is firearms" to "The leading method of suicide in America is firearms" for accuracy.

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