Gun suicide accounts for 2/3 of fatal gun violence every year. Until recently I have always been somewhat uncomfortable lumping suicide and homicide together, if only because the nature of the event is so different, the ownership and access to the weapon is so different, hence one assumes that the mitigation strategies should be different. But following discussions with the expert suicide researchers at Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center and a review of peer-reviewed literature, I am persuaded that gun suicide is not only a fundamental gun violence problem, but understanding and responding to it might provide a map for mitigating gun homicides and gun assaults as well.
Gun suicides and gun homicides intersect In two basic ways: the lethality of the weapon and the motives and behavior of the shooter leading up to the incident itself. As to the former, guns used in suicides result in a success rate of 95%. No other suicide effort is half as effective in the final result. As for homicide, obviously the “success” rate is only about 10%, but there is no other serious injury which comes close to generating the costs and trauma that results from being wounded with a gun.
As to behavior, the degree to which impulse governs the actions of everyone who shoots themselves or others with a gun should not be overlooked. Less than 20% of all homicides occur during the commission of another, serious crime. Most gun homicides grow out of a history of disputes between individuals who know each other and the incidence of domestic abuse in homicides where the victims are women is virtually 100%. I recently discussed a report from the Violence Policy Center in which I noted that a random search of gun homicides committed by CCW-holders showed that virtually all of them grew out of arguments and fights, usually aggravated by too much to drink. Is there really a great difference between the guy who gets sick and tired of fighting with himself or sick and tired of arguing with his wife and reaches for his gun? I don’t think so, and the research on suicide and homicide tends to bear me out.
What about mitigating strategies for both types of fatalities involving guns? An article on suicide prevention among Israeli soldiers caught my eye because Israel is often touted by the pro-gun community as the model for giving civilians full access to guns with a consequent low rate of violent crime. But the policy of allowing soldiers to keep their guns with them on weekend leave also resulted in an alarmingly high rate of suicide among these soldiers, which dropped by nearly 40% when soldiers had to leave their guns secured at their base while spending weekends at home. Anyone who thinks there’s no connection between suicide and gun access needs to look honestly at what happened in Israel before and after access to guns was denied.
The pro-gun folks would like to believe that gun fatalities have nothing to do with guns and are all about crime. There’s a simple logic to that argument except for the fact that every single gun involved in a criminal event first started out as a legal gun. For that matter, most of the guns in suicides either were legally owned by the suicide victim or belonged to another family member who legally purchased the gun.
The usual response from the gun-safety community is to push for an expansion of CAP laws, and clearly such laws do have a mitigating effect when it comes to keeping kids away from guns. But let me break the news to you gently – the big problem with such laws is that the only way that someone can use a gun is to unlock where the gun is stored or unlock the gun itself. And the problem we face with both gun suicides and gun homicides is figuring out how to spot the impulsive, destructive behavior of certain people before they get their hands on a gun.