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Davis, California

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Suicides by firearm more common, preventable than you think

A bad day, impulsivity, easy access to guns makes for a deadly combination

Suicide, which is the 10th leading cause of death in America, has increased by 17 percent since 2010. And more than half of the 42,773 Americans who killed themselves did so with guns — a number that is far greater than the number of people who were killed in homicides and accidents by firearms combined.

Those are startling facts. And to someone like me, who was under the impression that mass shootings and homicides were the leading causes of gun violence, these facts are mind-boggling.

Easy access to guns pose a huge problem for these very reasons. Compared to other methods of suicide, such as drug overdose, poison or inhalation of car exhaust, pulling a trigger is almost always lethal and irreversible.

Where attempt at suicide by firearm has an 85 percent mortality rate, drug overdose is fatal in less than 3 percent of cases, giving the troubled individual a second chance at his or her life. In fact, 9 out of ten attempted-suicide survivors do not go on to try to take their life a second time, and many of those survivors also seek professional help.

Moreover, studies have found that states with more lenient gun laws and therefore more household gun ownership have a higher suicide rate than those with stricter gun laws and less household gun ownership. Suicide is rarely a long, carefully engineered plan that suffering individuals engage in. It’s usually preceded by events such as an explosive fight with a significant other, a devastating layoff or a trigger to a haunting experience.

It’s usually caused by an impulse decision. It’s usually preventable.

This impulsivity is key. According to a 2001 study conducted by the Center for Disease Control, survivors of a near-death suicide attempt were asked to report how much time had passed between when they decided to take their life and when they actually attempted to do so.

Four percent said less than five minutes; 48 percent said less than 20 minutes; 70 percent said less than one hour; and 86 percent said less than eight hours. There is little time between the decision and the action. Factor in the easy access to guns –– no background checks and no evaluation of mental health or stability of the buyer –– and it makes it that much faster for a volatile individual to get a gun and get out.

This is why it’s imperative to create laws that restrict access to guns, or at least create an accountability system on the part of gun sellers, who currently have no obligation to screen a buyer before making a sale.

When Ralph Demicco, owner of Riley’s, a gun shop, learned of suicides committed with firearms from his store, he decided to investigate. He found that when looking back on multiple instances, tell-tale cues popped up: a customer asking for only a small amount of ammunition, looking uneasy or, the biggest indicator, starting to cry after being asked a few questions. With a little prodding and questioning, the intending customer was deterred from buying altogether — further proof that the fragile impulsivity so characteristic of at-risk individuals is capable of being disarmed with a simple line of inquiry on the part of gun dealers.

If change cannot begin with the law, it must begin with the individuals who place guns into the hands of unstable and despairing souls. But we must begin to ask the right questions.

It’s not a question of whether or not you are pro-gun or anti-gun, because everyone will always be on one side of the matter. The question, as Madeline Drexler of Harvard Public Health eloquently put it, is how do we solve the issue of gun suicide?

And only when we start asking the right question can we, as a society, come to a consensus on how to save the lives of our fellow Americans.


Written by: Tamanna Ahluwalia — tahluwalia@ucdavis.edu


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