Now that Harry Reid has mentioned the possibility of a new attempt to pass gun control legislation, the gun debate will probably begin to heat up again. And while most of the argument usually focuses on keeping guns away from people like Elliot Rodger, who display clear symptoms of mental distress, the larger issue of mental illness and guns, i.e., suicide, is usually left out of the debate. This is not only because the NRA and its allies define gun violence in strictly criminal terms (homicide, assault, etc.,) but because the number of suicides, particularly suicides involving guns, have of late been going up, while the number of gun homicides keeps going down. And since our overall suicide rate is still within the range of many industrialized countries which have much tighter control over guns, it becomes somewhat difficult for the gun-control folks to create much traction over the issue of suicide and guns.
But while our national suicide rate is within average limits for many Western countries, the picture changes dramatically when we compare the numbers from state to state. And the comparison is available in a remarkable data series published by the Injury Control Research Center (ICRC) at Harvard University’s School of Public Health. The data, which covers the years 1999 to 2006, is current enough to be considered valid for any discussion about the relationship of suicide to guns, and if viewed objectively, leaves no doubt that we can’t just pretend, a la the NRA, that guns and suicide have no connection at all. The data is strikingly ominous when we examine the data for suicides of persons under the age of 18.
According to the ICRC, the national gun suicide rate for young people is 0.83 per 100,000. But in the four Western states (South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho) plus Alaska that have the highest per capita gun ownership of all 50 states, the gun suicide rate ranges from 2 per 100,000 in Idaho up to 4.56 in Alaska, with the other three states in between. But while guns are a clear risk factor for suicide in these states, the disconcerting evidence is somewhat obscured by the fact that these same states have very low levels of gun homicide for the youth population, with every state except Alaska falling well below the national rate of 1.77 per 100,000.
The whole issue of guns and suicide becomes more difficult to untangle when one factors in the profile of gun ownership in those states, namely, that they have the highest per-capita gun ownership of all 50 states, the survey data for this information also borne out by rates of NICS background checks. So while these states, from the perspective of suicide and guns are very unsafe, living in these states poses minimal risk for being the victim of intentional shootings by others, and this profile holds true not just for the youth population, but the adult population as well.
The problem with trying to unite everyone behind more effective measures to curb gun suicides is that, as opposed to gun crimes, it is assumed that most guns used in suicides are owned or were acquired legally. And since the NRA is steadfastly opposed to any legal restrictions on law-abiding gun owners, the organization is not about to consider that suicide with a gun is another form of gun violence that, like homicides or assaults, needs to be regulated or controlled.
So I have an idea. Let’s change the terminology and, for example, call gun suicide not an act of violence, but an act of despair – gun despair. The gun folks can continue to promote the idea that guns are only violent when used by the ‘bad’ guys, and the public health folks can focus on dealing with mental health without riling up the NRA. I, for one, don’t really care how we solve the issue of gun violence, just as long as we get it done.