Wednesday, October 28, 2020



We often think of guns in the context of hurting or killing others, but in fact in the USA, suicide deaths by firearm are more common than any other category of gun death (including homicide) among both males and females and across most age categories. Males account for more than 85% of all gun deaths, regardless of intent category. 

(Image: / Shutterstock) 

Suicide claims the lives of 23,000 Americans every year, including 1100 children and teens. Nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths in the US are suicides, which is an average of 63 deaths a day, about the same number as the fatalities in the Las Vegas mass shooting.

(Centers of Disease Control & Prevention / RCraig09)

The pie-chart view is another way to look at it:


The Global Perspective

The USA leads the world in gun-related suicides. 


Although the USA ranked fourth in the world in 2016 with 12,400 firearm-related homicides, that figure pales in comparison with its 23,800 gun suicides. None of the other 194 nations and territories in the report came close; India ranked second at 13,400. It should be noted that in 2016, the highest per capita suicide rate by firearm was recorded by Greenland at 22 deaths per 100,000. Greenland is beset with challenges such as social turmoil and alcoholism.

Gun Ownership And Suicide Risk

A large and influential study in The New England Journal of Medicine found an elevated risk of suicide among a large sample of first-time handgun owners. Stanford University researchers followed over 26 million men and women in California who were 21 and older and who hadn’t owned guns before October 2004. A little less than 3% of the cohort, or 676,425 people, became gun owners between then and 2016. In this group, the risk of suicide in this group was about nine times higher than among non-owners. 

Those who died by suicide using a firearm — 6,691 people out of 17,894 total suicides (37.4%) — tended to be male, white, and of middle age (mean age of 41 years). The period after gun purchase that had the highest suicide risk was 1 - 3 years. A firearm was used in 89% of the suicides among handgun owners and 33% of those among nonowners.

Two notable findings emerged in this rigorous study: first, new handgun ownership is strongly associated with suicide immediately following California’s 10-day waiting period between purchase and acquisition of a firearm; second, although the absolute risk of suicide is higher among men than among women, new handgun ownership is associated with a disproportionately greater increase in death by suicide among women.

The one-purpose device

Suicide by gun is a particularly violent and heart-wrenching mode of death. Imagine the horror of coming home to find one of your loved ones dead from a fatal, self-inflicted gunshot wound. This is the kind of image that will haunt a person for years. To me, the revulsion I have for a firearm is that it's an instrument singularly-purposed for a single deadly purpose. People jump off bridges, but that's not why bridges were built; rope can be used to hang oneself, but that's not the primary use of a rope; you can slash your wrist with a razor or knife, but they weren't made for that reason. You can OD on opioids, but their original purpose is otherwise. But a gun? There are no two ways. If you point a loaded pistol at your head and fire, it will do its only assigned job.

Morality of Suicide

There is philosophical, psychological, and moral debate about suicide. Is it actually immoral or wrong in some other way? Is it selfish? People often cite the severe blow dealt to family and loved ones. Why didn't the suicide victim think about that? And anyway, isn't the phrase "suicide victim" an oxymoron?  

In considering suicide however, it's well to examine the surrounding circumstances. Perhaps suicide should be thought of not so much as an isolated act, but as the fatal and tragic (always tragic) end of a certain progression of events. In the depth of a severe depression, the self-loathing can be so intense that the sufferer completely devalues themselves. Even the persuasion that their family loves them can be quite meaningless and unhelpful, because, in any case, a suicidal person doesn't believe that. 

Why guns are the problem

Sworn NRA members often say, "Guns don't shoot people, people shoot people." This is one of the stupidest, most simplistic, circular, and self-defeating platitudes I've ever heard. The answer, of course, is, "Yes, but people can't shoot people without a gun." [Insert rolling eyes emoji here.]

Many people can get to the other side of severe depression by their own fortitude or with the support of others. With treatment, these same people will no longer want to kill themselves. Suicide is sometimes a flash decision after waxing and waning of suicidal intent. That flash decision, which could have been otherwise forestalled, is fulfilled by a gun at hand. The chance the person had to get through their dark, terrible moment is now gone for good. That's where the tragedy is, and that's why the call for gun regulation remains strong.


  1. Another inciteful and thought provoking piece, Kwei. There is, of course, a lot of evidence linking the free availability of firearms with their use in suicide. I don't know how the correlation works with total suicides, but I'd suspect it's similar.

    PS Congrats on getting a whole piece on the new Blogger without the font varying!

  2. Hahaha: it can be tough!
    Firearm-related suicides in the US were about half of all total suicides in 2017, i.e. 7.3 of 14.5 per 100,000 population, according to the CDC:

  3. All good we come up on a date that may go down in history as a mass suicide by ballot box.

  4. In the UK, most firearm suicides use a shotgun, which strikes me as a particularly unpleasant way for whoever happens to discover the deceased.

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