When Discussing Gun Violence, We Can’t Forget About Suicide

It was 2 p.m. when local police in Brainerd, Minnesota, received an urgent call. According to witnesses, 77-year-old Henry Thomas had been shooting targets with a rented handgun at Bill’s Gun Shop & Range.

Suddenly, Thomas put the weapon to his head and pulled the trigger. In the blink of an eye, this man’s life was gone; medical experts pronounced him dead at the scene.

While this particular tragic incident might sound uncommon, the use of guns to commit suicide in the United States is most certainly not.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, 44,193 Americans completed their suicide attempts in 2015. Of them, 22,018 – almost exactly half — involved the use of a firearm.

While it’s clear where my argument is headed, there’s no doubt that at least several readers might argue that a suicidal individual — much like a homicidal person — will carry out their goals, regardless of what means they have at their disposal. When it comes to suicide, however, history and science shows that when it’s more difficult to commit self-inflicted harm, people are less likely to attempt — or succeed if they do try.

When it comes to the study of suicide methodology, a landmark report dating back to 1976 is still considered important literature on the issue to this day.

Between 1960 and 1971, the United Kingdom saw particularly high rates of suicide. Medical experts were naturally troubled by these trends and began studying commonly used methods. They found that a popular technique involved asphyxiation by inhaling toxic gas from household ovens. At the time, virtually all ovens in the UK used coal gas, which is high in carbon monoxide content. By the early 1970s, coal gas ovens were largely phased out in the UK, replaced with ovens fueled by a gas with a much safer composition.

Several years later, an exhaustive study noted that this fuel transition coincided with a significant causal drop in suicides in the UK — a whopping one-third decline.

This UK study clearly shows that suicide method options influence a person’s motivation to make an attempt. It could even be argued that coal gas oven asphyxiation was the UK’s suicide method of choice because of how relatively easy — and virtually painless — it was to carry out.

Similarly, a newly published collaborative report closely examines the relationships between firearm regulation and gun deaths on a state-by-state and county-by-county basis. Analyzing a four-year period, the researchers say they consistently found a trend of lower suicide rates — in general, not just those committed by firearm — in states with stricter gun control laws.

When it comes to suicide, the role of firearms should be closely considered, just as coal gas ovens once were. Compared to asphyxiation and other methods — like intentional overdosing — a self-inflicted gunshot is far swifter with a lower risk of failure.

Many suicides are, by their very nature, impulsive. A suicidal individual who has swallowed a number of pills or attempts to bleed out in a bathtub won’t necessarily complete their attempt; that person also has a window during which they can change their mind and contact emergency services or be discovered by someone else in time to receive medical attention.

Strengthening firearm regulations will not eliminate suicide in the United States, of course. While some determined individuals would  simply seek out a different method, the data indicates that this would not be the case for everyone.

Individuals who own a firearm should be legally required to store it in a locked safe at home. The purchasing process could also be revised to include a periodic mental health status check and the legal ability for authorities to seize firearms from at-risk individuals.

Despite a national focus on mass shootings and, to a lesser extent, homicides, suicides by firearm account for an enormous number of American deaths.

Photo Credit: Ben White/Unsplash

62 comments

Marie W
Marie W3 months ago

Thank you

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Dale B
Dale B9 months ago

This story is hitting close to home. My favorite cousin committed suicide last Sunday using a gun. We are all still in shock at what happened, we didn't see any signs for concern.

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Paulo Reeson
Paulo R9 months ago

ty

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Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld9 months ago

Milli,
That tends to be a major problem here. One group blames Trump and the Republicans for all our ills, while another blames Obama and the Democrats. Very few can see that they are both to blame.

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MilliSiteProbs M
MilliSiteProbs M9 months ago

Susan Vogel-Hudgins
Your comment to David F, "why don't you research the FACTS rather than spout the RW meme that Obama is responsible for everything. etc." if you read the comments on any blog, most that post on here are continually blaming Trump for everything (including suicide stats?).

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Elaine W
Elaine W9 months ago

Noted and I do not have the answer.

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Lisa M
Lisa M9 months ago

Noted.

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Lisa M
Lisa M9 months ago

Noted.

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Debra G
Debra G9 months ago

Oh my, Jenn C. , you are truly heartless. Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in 15-24 year olds. Most teens do not spend a long time planning to kill themselves. They may have thought about it or tried it in the past but only decide to do it after an event that produces feelings of failure or loss, such as getting in trouble, having an argument, breaking up with a partner, or receiving a bad grade on a test. Having a gun in the home (or friend’s home) makes an impulsive act final.

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Shirley S
Shirley S9 months ago

A sad state of mind.

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