Over the last 20 years, nearly a million Americans have taken their own lives. During that time, suicide has been the tenth leading cause of death for all ages.1 In 2020, it was the second leading cause of death for the ages of 10-14 and 25-34 and the third leading cause for ages 15-24. Because the incidence of suicides is so high among young people, the years of life lost2 is especially tragic. One research group estimated that in 2020 alone, there were nearly a million years of life lost in America to suicide.
The number of suicides over the last two decades has been steadily increasing, reflecting both a larger population and about a third increase in the rate of suicide. Interestingly, suicides topped out at just over 48,000 in 2018, and then declined slightly in 2019 and 2020. Preliminary data for 2021 indicates that there was probably not much change from 2020. This contradicts the predictions of many, including yours truly, that suicides would increase during the pandemic due to depression from isolation.
Advocates for stricter gun laws, almost always lump suicides together with homicides and firearm accidents, when citing the toll of gun violence in America. I think that is unhelpful in trying to sort out why so many people die from guns in America because the two phenomena are so dramatically different. However, it is entirely fair to ask the question of whether American’s greater access to guns affects the number of suicides.
It seems intuitive that greater access to a lethal weapon would certainly make it easier to commit suicide and therefore more likely. A survey of studies conducted by a research group at Harvard suggests a correlation between the number of gun ownership parameters and higher suicide rates, e.g., people who own handguns are almost ten more likely to commit suicide than non-owners. However, as I have previously discussed, correlation does not necessarily imply causation and some of the data suggests a more complicated picture.
First, only about half of all suicides are committed with a firearm and that rate has remained fairly steady over the last twenty years, despite the rapid increase in gun ownership I noted in my last post. Indeed, the number of suicides committed without a firearm has actually increased by a greater percentage over the last twenty years than firearm suicides (72% vs. 46%).
Also, the United States’ suicide rate is only slightly higher when compared to other countries. In 2019, the global rate was about 10.4 versus 11.7 for the U.S., which, of course, does not come close to coinciding with our country’s dramatically disproportionate private ownership of firearms compared to other countries.3 And to further muddle the data, there are several countries with miniscule private gun ownership but which have higher suicide rates than the U.S., e.g., Belgium, Russia, South Korea.
One factor is that individuals who attempt suicide with a firearm more often succeed in ending their life than those who use other methods. A 2000 study found that 82% of those who attempted suicide with a firearm died while less than 10% of those who used other methods did. The study was a relatively small sample and is somewhat dated, but I find those results intuitive and likely consistent with all suicides attempts.
So, does the greater access to firearms in America result in a higher suicide rate? I do not think we can definitively answer that question. But it seems to me that the weight of the evidence suggests the ready access to firearms is a factor that results in a higher rate than we might otherwise have. Does it make a dramatic difference? I doubt it.
Note 1 – Most of the data in this post I got from running queries on the Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System maintained by the CDC’s Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System. However, the comparable suicide rates for other countries have been age adjusted and as a result show slightly different values.
Note 2 – “Years of life lost” is a calculation that compares a person’s date of death to their life expectancy at that age. For example, if a person dies at 20, the normal life expectancy at that age is 85, so the years of life lost would be 65.
Note 3 – Some caution should be exercised in comparing fatality statistics of any type between countries because data gathering procedures and definitions vary significantly.