Why Aren't We Doing Anything About Gun Suicides?

Both sides in the gun debate have it wrong. One camp views guns primarily as a means of self-defense and the other camp understands guns as primarily being an instrument of murder. In reality, at least in terms of their use against humans, guns are primarily a means to commit suicide. Self-defense only makes up 1 percent of intentional, fatal shootings. Murders constitute 29 percent and suicides represent 70 percent of intentional gun killings in the United States. 21,175 people died by committing suicide with a firearm in the United States in 2013. Yet a discussion of suicide is almost entirely absent from the gun policy debate. Obvious policy fixes that could save a large number of lives are simply ignored because of this lack of public attention.

The relationship between guns and suicide rates is well-established. 84 percent of scientists studying related areas believe that having a gun in the home increases the risk of suicide. Understanding the connection requires some background information regarding suicide. Many people who attempt suicide rethink their decision and apply pressure to the wound, vomit up the pills or call for help. Many others simply survive the attempt and then decide that they want to live. Two-thirds of people who attempt suicide choose drugs as the means. Of those, only 2 percent die from the attempt. Attempting suicide by cutting oneself is the second most common choice of means and is only fatal 1 percent of the time. On the other hand, 85 percent of all suicide attempts using a firearm are fatal. Suicide attempts using a firearm make up less than 6 percent of all suicide attempts, but 55 percent of all suicide fatalities. With a gun, there is no time for rethinking. There is no chance that loved ones will find the person in time. A momentary impulse can be all it takes to make a very final decision.

Restricting access to the deadliest means of committing suicide has consistently been found to be effective in the United States and around the world. The simplest way to tackle gun suicides would be to implement policies to reduce gun ownership rates. States with lower gun ownership levels have dramatically fewer suicides. Also, studies consistently find that policies implementing waiting periods, more extensive background checks and licensing requirements that require a delay before purchasing a gun significantly reduce the incidence of suicide. However, these types of policies are extremely politically controversial and unlikely to be enacted in the near term, at least in the states with the highest levels of gun ownership and suicide. However, some more targeted approaches to reducing gun suicide may be politically viable.

A more targeted approach requires identifying individuals who are at risk of committing suicide. Once those at risk have been identified, their right to possess or buy firearms can be temporarily suspended and any guns they own can be secured until they are no longer at risk. Unfortunately, current law is inadequate for this purpose. The Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits people who have been "adjudicated as a mental defective" or "committed to any mental institution" from buying or possessing firearms. But adjudication and commitment are very high bars. While between one sixth and one third of people who commit suicide have some history of receiving mental health treatment, far fewer have been subjected to the type of formal proceeding required in order to add them to the NICS background check database. Furthermore, given that for many people, the desire to commit suicide is temporary, permanently denying them the right to bear arms seems excessive, and the idea of dragging a person's most intimate feelings through court just when they are at their most emotionally vulnerable is clearly problematic.

In order to be effective, the process of identifying individuals at risk of committing suicide would need to be both easier to apply and less drastic. The Constitution, of course, only permits the government to take away a person's constitutional rights after conducting due process. However, the amount of process required scales in proportion to the scope of the right being taken away. So, a temporary revocation of a person's right to bear arms would require a less invasive, public and slow form of due process than revoking that right permanently. Ideally, policy could be crafted to enable friends, families and mental health professionals to initiate a small, fast and confidential proceeding to determine whether the individual is at risk of committing suicide.

A targeted approach may not be as effective as restrictions that apply to the entire population, but it has the advantage of being politically feasible. Public support for policies that prevent people who are struggling with mental health issues from purchasing firearms is overwhelming and bi-partisan. Also, traditionally, when controversial issues involving suicide have been in the spotlight, such as in the case of doctor-assisted suicide, the right has been passionately against suicide while the left has been more open to the concept of a "right to die." A policy directed at reducing gun suicides may shake up the typical camps and open up the possibility of alliances stretching across the aisle.

The number of gun deaths in the United States is out of control relative to the rest of the developed world. If we can't make headway on the problem of gun murders, and it seems that at present we cannot, then we need to shift focus to battles that are winnable. And ultimately, tackling the problem of gun suicides could save many more lives than strategies focused on reducing gun murders.