Guns’ Hidden Victims

An artistic line of guns painted pink pointed at balloons.

by Rachel Jenkins, Senior Content Strategist | New Directions + Tridiuum

View more resources for Suicide Prevention & Awareness Month 2022

View Resources

Though suicide tends to garner less media attention than homicide, it consistently accounts for most gun deaths in the U.S. This is nothing new—it’s a fact that has held true since at least 1981. In 2020, suicides made up more than half of U.S. gun deaths in the U.S., which nearly set a record high. Suicide Awareness Month in September is an appropriate time to examine the dangerous relationship between suicidal individuals and access to firearms, and recognizing just how significant the impact a gun has on a suicide attempt ending in death.

Youth Suicide & Access to Guns
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young Americans (ages 10–24), which increased by 53% between 2011 and 2020. Young men are at a higher risk, representing nine out of 10 firearm suicide victims. Risk also varies among ethnicities, so likelihood of suicide requires a diverse cultural understanding. Certain ethnicities’ baseline higher risk for suicide has been shown to worsen when they have access to firearms. Among youth, the highest suicide by firearm rate is among American Indian/Alaska Native, white and Black populations.

“As students continue to navigate changes in school learning environments [due to COVID-19 and other factors]…there is concern that the anxiety and loneliness already felt by many young people will continue to increase. This comes at the same time as an unprecedented surge in gun sales in the U.S., raising concern about the already growing rates of firearm suicide,” reports Everytown for Gun Safety.

Lethal Nature of Guns
Much of what makes guns so dangerous to individuals following through with suicide is the speed at which a firearm can take a life. In fact, most people who attempt suicide do not die unless they use a gun. Ninety percent of suicide attempts with a gun end in death, while other methods do so only 4% of the time. Pulling a trigger leaves little time to reconsider and low chance for survival.

Suicide & Gun Owners
According to Everytown Research, there are three factors that increase suicide risk: current life stressors, historical risk factors and lethal means of harm. This last factor is significant. Simply having access to a powerful weapon leads to a higher risk that a suicidal individual will use it and not survive an attempt on their life.

“It’s not that gun owners are more suicidal. It’s that they’re more likely to die in the event that they become suicidal, because they are using a gun,” said Catherine Barber, director of a Harvard Injury Control Research Center (HICRC) suicide prevention campaign.

Preventing Suicide
The simplest method of suicide prevention is recognizing red flags and acting swiftly to get the person to crisis resources. Most of us are familiar with warning signs like vocalizations of self-harm or hopelessness, a history of mental illness and withdrawal from friends and family, but suicidal individuals may also display a sudden and misleading boost in mood. Loved ones should know that any drastic change in demeanor can point to underlying issues in those with existing mental illness and should be acutely aware of comments regarding firearms or the individual’s access to weapons in this state.

The behavioral healthcare community must support continued research into the segments of society most at risk for suicide and gun access, particularly youth. Critically, studies have shown that limiting access to guns in any population reduces the likelihood of a suicide attempt being actualized. Gun owners should take seriously the risks that access to weapons pose for those who suffer with suicidal ideation. It is crucial that any firearms kept at home, especially in a residence with young people, are stored safely, securely and unloaded. Third-party storage options are also available and should be considered for increased safety. Understanding suicidal ideation and limiting access to lethal firearms in the home is critical to facing this upsetting truth confronting our country.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Dial 988 or 800-273-8255