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Why suicide prevention advocates are joining the U.S. gun policy debate

·National Reporter and Producer
·7 min read
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With thousands of people dying each year by self-inflicted gunshot wounds, suicides are a crucial part of the U.S. gun policy debate. Yet, compared to mass shootings and other homicides, these deaths tend not to attract as much attention.

More than 52% of the 45,222 gun deaths in the U.S. in 2020 were suicides – 24,292 – according to the latest available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The evidence suggests that if guns were less accessible, there would be fewer suicides. Guns are used in only 6% of all suicide attempts, but are responsible for an unusually high rate of successful attempts.

The recent mass shootings of 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and of Black shoppers at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., have prompted lawmakers to pursue legislation on gun safety measures.

Suicide with a gun on a gray background (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

But advocates of suicide prevention are hoping this topic isn’t left out of the conversation, because while research shows that homicides account for a significant portion of gun-related deaths, suicide attempts with guns take many more lives.

“What guns do is: They make suicide attempts lethal. It's like, if you have a gun in your house, you've increased the risk that someone in the home will die from suicide by about threefold,” Dr. David Hemenway, a Harvard professor and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, told Yahoo News.

Hemenway co-conducted a Harvard Public Health study in 2008 that found a higher rate of suicide in states with more guns. He said that most people who attempt suicide act on impulse or in moments of panic, and that it is important that they not have firearms nearby. For those whose acute feelings ease, he said about 90% do not go on to die by suicide.

This correlation between the availability of guns and more suicide deaths is a “powerful” link, the study found. “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,” its summary stated.

A more recent study that Hemenway co-authored in 2022 about who owned the guns used in a suicide said that “one way to reduce firearm suicide is to keep household guns away from a person at risk for suicide.”

“We've been promoting for the last more than a dozen years this notion of 'Friends don't let friends drive drunk.' Friends don't let friends who are going through a bad patch keep their firearms,” he said.

Yahoo News analyzed 2020 CDC data on the suicide mortality rate by state and compared it to rankings of states with the strongest gun laws, via gunpolicy.org.

States with the lowest suicide rate also had the strongest gun laws. New York, New Jersey, California, Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois, Rhode Island, Hawaii and Connecticut ranked in the bottom 10 in suicide rate deaths and had the strictest gun laws.

As Congress debates whether to take action on gun policy in the aftermath of mass shootings in Uvalde, Buffalo and elsewhere, some advocates are hoping these measures may also stem the crisis of suicide.

One of the advocates is Erin Dunkerly, an active member of the Brady Campaign’s Southern California Regional Leadership Council, whose father took his own life.

“My dad was a free spirit, and he was very opinionated at times,” Dunkerly said. “He was a lot of fun to hang out with, and he was my good friend, actually.”

She said her father died in 2006, after finding a gun in his friend’s bedroom drawer. He had attempted suicide before but was able to receive treatment. His next attempt, however, was fatal.

“After he was robbed at gunpoint, he struggled again with fear and trauma, and ultimately found a gun at a friend’s house that was not stored securely. I know my dad would have gone on to have better days, but the definitive nature of a gunshot wound didn’t let that happen. Guns are so instantly lethal, compared to other means of suicide, which calls for us all to be extra responsible for deadly tools when we know people are having a hard time.”

Responsible gun ownership is an issue that may result in new federal laws after many years of failed attempts in Congress, in particular after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.

On June 12, a group of 20 senators announced that they had formed a deal around gun safety measures that they believe both parties could get behind, marking major progress in the debate.

The package, unveiled on Tuesday, allows states to implement so-called red flag laws that permit police to petition a court to temporarily remove a firearm from someone who may present a danger to themselves or others. It also opens the door for more spending on mental health treatment and school security.

“I think it’s a wonderful start, and I am thankful for the senators who have worked across party lines to come to compromises in the interest of moving things forward and making our country safer," Dunkerly said.

“Of the proposals, the federal funding for extreme risk protection order [red flag] laws and mental health funding are particularly helpful to suicide prevention.”

While Congress considers gun legislation, mass shootings are ravaging communities across the United States. But while these shootings often make headlines, the suicide gun deaths typically aren’t publicized.

At Robb Elementary School, floral bouquets and crosses bearing the names of the gunman's victims stand by the entrance to the school.
A memorial at the Robb Elementary School after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 26 in Uvalde, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

In an open letter, the leading scientific and professional organization representing psychology, the American Psychological Association, called on Congress to take action on the “public health crisis” of gun violence and to pass legislation promoting safety.

“Science suggests that a history of violence, not a mental health diagnosis, is the best predictor of future violence. And the vast majority of gun violence deaths are not mass shootings, they are suicides,” said Dr. Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer for the APA.

The highest rate of suicide is among middle-aged white men, , Prinstein said, adding that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people (aged 10-24) and is increasing at an alarming rate in Black communities.

In 2019, the Congressional Black Caucus launched an emergency task force on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health, to address the growing rate of suicide amongst Black Americans, especially children.

“Promoting lethal means safety [i.e. safe storage] is fundamental to reducing our nation's suicide rates. APA firmly supports expanding federal funding for state Extreme Risk Protection Order [ERPO, aka red flag] laws,” Dr. Prinstein added.

“These laws can prevent suicides and can provide communities with an opportunity to petition the courts to intervene, and temporarily remove a firearm if the person is a possible risk to themselves or others, without legal repercussions.”

Gun control advocacy groups rally with Democratic members of Congress, holding signs that say: Moms Demand Action, Gun Laws Save Lives, Stop killing us! We need gun control NOW! and Every Town for Gun Safety.
Gun control advocacy groups rally with Democratic members of Congress outside the U.S. Capitol on May 26 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Dunkerly echoed those sentiments about laws supporting ERPOs and securing guns: “There are a lot of guns in the United States: 120 firearms for every 100 people. Therefore, laws that address the guns already in circulation are vital,” she said.

“Possible laws include requirements to safely and securely store guns, which protects everyone in a household, including visitors. Extreme Risk Protection Orders are also vital. Friends and family are often in the best position to observe warning signs that someone is struggling or having ideas about harming themselves or others with their firearms, so the ability for people to seek the temporary removal of those firearms is crucial.”

“The government can do lots of things. The government should, for example, do more research and development about smart guns,” Hemenway added, describing guns that can only be used and fired by a verified user. Similar to cellphone technology, the weapons are unlocked with a fingerprint or a pin code, but the technology is very new.

“Smart guns won't save the gun owner, but maybe save kids and their spouse who might use the gun,” he said.