In my professional life as a psychologist, I have treated thousands of patients with depression. In every case my immediate question is, “Are there any guns in your house?”
While many people contemplate suicide, the potential of acting on those thoughts goes up exponentially when a gun is in the house, especially a handgun.
The logic of that fact is easy to follow. Suicide attempts and death rates are contingent on the availability and lethality of the means. When the means are lethal, suicide is more likely to be successful. Humans are more likely to act on a thought when it is easy, and having a gun makes it very easy.
Contrast male and female suicide deaths. Men are three to four times more successful in killing themselves because they use guns. Women attempt to end their lives with an overdose of pills or other means and die much less often. Guns are far more lethal. If new gun ownership spreads to women, we, unfortunately, are likely to see an increase in their suicide rate.
This background is critical to understanding why states that have passed laws to make acquiring and carrying a gun easier raise the risk of increased suicide rates.
Past research on this topic has been consistent but typically with few subjects. A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine changed that. It followed 26 million California residents over 12 years and compared those who bought their first handguns with suicide rates in households with no handguns.
“Men who owned handguns were eight times more likely than men who didn’t to die of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Women who owned handguns were more than 35 times more likely than women who didn’t kill themselves with a gun.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 24,432 suicides in the United States in 2018. Three-quarters of them involved handguns. The chances of finding a gun in an American home are about the same as finding a carton of milk in the refrigerator.
Suicides are mostly unseen. They are extraordinarily painful for families but also carry an element of shame. It is rare to see any mention of suicide in an obituary. It’s likely that many suicides are not reported. Homicides, on the other hand, are widely publicized, creating public anger and fear. The difference in emotion is critical in understanding that gun laws are focused on the one-third of handgun deaths that occur in criminal events. Publicity is mainly oblivious to the two-thirds that occur in suicide deaths.
The gun ownership issue plays out dramatically when we compare states with lenient gun laws and concurrent high gun ownership and states with strict gun laws and their lower gun ownership.
California, Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Hawaii, Maryland and Massachusetts have the strictest gun laws. They also have the lowest rate of death by gun violence. These states tend to have the lowest level of suicides by handguns, a major part of their lower rate of gun violence.
In contrast, Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri, Louisiana, Wyoming, Alaska, Arkansas and West Virginia have the most lenient gun laws in the United States. They have among the highest suicide rates. These states have recently expanded gun rights. All are likely to see an increase in suicide deaths in the future.
Science and statistics might be strong, but they pale against feelings and tradition. It’s unlikely that gun laws will become stricter in states that have passed more lenient legislation this year. But sharing the high incidence of suicides by handguns can be valuable if people understand the risk and act themselves.
Few people believe suicide will ever occur in their house. Yet it happens in the best of homes. In 2020, suicide rates were highest among adults age 25 to 34 years and 75 to 84 years. This is not the stereotype of only teenagers.
Right now, our country is especially stressed. Depression and anxiety levels are at record highs. It is not a good time to have a handgun in your home.