A Worrying Rise in Gun Suicides

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlights the growing problem of firearm suicides in the U.S. Since 2008, the rate of gun suicides has risen 22 percent and is driving the increase in gun-related deaths. (Suicides make up almost two-thirds of all gun-related deaths.) Among children and teens in particular, the gun-suicide rate is up more than 76 percent. Although only a small percentage of suicide attempts are made with a firearm, more than half of all suicide deaths are carried out with one. The primary victims are older white men.

A Worrying Rise in Gun Suicides

Many people assume that nothing can be done to curtail such suicides. That is false. While there may be warning signs before a suicide attempt, the attempts themselves are often spontaneous, not planned. Almost half of survivors say they spent less than 10 minutes deliberating.

It’s not surprising then that access to a firearm triples the risk of death by suicide — not only for those who personally own a gun, but also for those who live in a household with a gun. Likewise, gun ownership rates in states are strongly correlated with rates of firearm suicide. (Gun mortality rates in general follow a pattern: They’re higher in states with lax gun laws.)

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University estimated that after Connecticut passed a law requiring individuals to obtain a permit or license to purchase a handgun (along with a background check), the state saw a 15 percent drop in firearm suicides. On the other hand, in Missouri, the 2007 repeal of its purchase permit law was associated with a 16 percent increase in firearm suicide rates.

The firearm suicide rate in the U.S. is eight times higher than in other affluent countries. To reduce that deadly disparity, public officials need to adopt known strategies for harm reduction — especially among older, rural white men; military veterans; and other populations with high rates of gun ownership and suicide. Interventions by social workers or medical professionals should be tailored demographically, including by sex and age. Some gun dealers have begun to educate customers on the association between firearms and suicide.

Laws also play a crucial role. It helps when states require permits to purchase firearms, impose waiting periods before gun purchases are completed, and adopt red flag laws to empower family members or law enforcement to petition courts to temporarily restrict gun possession by those who pose a risk to themselves or others. Safe storage laws can keep loaded guns beyond the reach of children and teens. Most young people who shoot themselves do so with a family member’s gun.

Suicides are not the only manifestation of the U.S.’s uniquely high rates of gun violence. But the CDC report confirms that they’re a growing menace. Smart policies can help blunt that trend, and reverse it.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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