Youth Suicide and Firearms
The suicide rate has risen dramatically in the United States since the turn of the century, and this tragic trend is not limited to adults. The rate at which white teens took their lives rose 70 percent between 2006 and 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among African Americans, the increase was 77 percent. Currently, suicide is the second leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults ages 16 to 24.
Experts have suggested a range of reasons, from economic despair to lack of accessible mental-health services. But a new study points to a more immediate and tangible catalyst for these self-induced fatalities: access to a firearm at home, or at the home of a friend or relative.
The study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, (Knopov, Siegel, et al, 2019) compared state-level rates of gun ownership, measured in 2004, with the rate of suicides among 10- to 19-year-olds between 2005 and 2015. The researchers calculated the association between those figures after taking into account a series of variables known to impact teen suicide rates, including mental-health issues, drug use, and binge drinking. The results were sobering. “In the 10 states with the highest youth suicide rates, the average household gun ownership rate was 52.5 percent, compared with a household gun ownership rate of 20 percent in the 10 states with the lowest suicide rates.” Altogether, the researchers report that the greater likelihood of having access to a firearm accounts for more than half of the state-to-state variance in teen suicide rates. “A higher prevalence of gun ownership is not associated with merely a shift from non-firearm to firearm suicide,” they add. “It is actually associated with an increase in the overall youth-suicide rate.”
They note that the percentage of suicide attempts that prove successful is far higher when a firearm is involved. Why? Attempters who take pills or inhale car exhaust or use razors have some time to reconsider mid-attempt and summon help or be rescued. The method itself often fails, even in the absence of a rescue. Even many of those who use hanging can stop mid-attempt as about half of hanging suicides are partial-suspension (meaning the person can release the pressure if they change their mind. (Bennewith, 2005).With a firearm, once the trigger is pulled, there’s no turning back. Siegel goes on to say, “This study demonstrates that the strongest single predictor of a state’s youth suicide rate is the prevalence of household gun ownership in that state.”
As mentioned, the firearms are usually those owned by family members. A recent study of firearm suicides among youths ages 17 and under occurring over a two-year period in four states and two counties found that 82% used a firearm belonging to a family member, usually a parent. When storage status was noted, about two-thirds of the firearms had been stored unlocked. Among the remaining cases in which the firearms had been locked, the youth knew the combination or where the key was kept or broke into the cabinet.
Parents may believe that their guns are adequately “hidden” or that their kids would never use them in a suicide attempt. But studies show parents sometimes underestimate their children’s experience handling guns at home. In a study by Baxley and Miller (2006), among gun-owning parents who reported that their children had never handled their firearms at home, 22% of the children, questioned separately, said that they had.
What is the takeaway from all of this data? The availability of firearms is one of strongest risk factors associated with youth suicide.