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Firearm suicides are rising in the US despite declining globally

In the past three decades, suicides involving guns have steadily dropped around the world. While down overall in the US since 1990, they began to climb in 2006 – coinciding with increased access to firearms

Health 25 May 2022

TINLEY PARK, IL - DECEMBER 17: A customer shops for a pistol at Freddie Bear Sports sporting goods store on December 17, 2012 in Tinley Park, Illinois. Americans purchased a record number of guns in 2012 and gun makers have reported a record high in demand. Firearm sales have surged recently as speculation of stricter gun laws and a re-instatement of the assault weapons ban following the mass school shooting in Connecticut . (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

11.3 million guns were produced in the US in 2020, according to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Rates of suicide using a firearm have declined globally in the past three decades but remain high in wealthier nations. In the US, rates are lower than they were in 1990, but they have been climbing since 2006.  

Irena Ilic at the University of Belgrade in Serbia and her colleagues analysed data from 204 countries and found that, between 1990 and 2019, the global rate of firearm suicide decreased by 2 per cent a year on average.  

That fits within a broader global trend of decreasing suicide rates, says Paul Nestadt at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. But the specific drop in gun-related suicides probably reflects increased firearm restrictions around the world. “There have been a variety of countries recognising the role of guns in suicide, and that is likely contributing to decreasing rates,” says Nestadt. 

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Higher rates in wealthier countries

Each year, more than 700,000 people worldwide die by suicide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). More than three-quarters of suicides occur in low and middle-income countries. But for those involving a firearm, rates are highest in wealthier countries, including the US, France, Canada, Switzerland, Finland and Norway. 

In 2019, there were nearly 53,000 firearm suicides worldwide.  

Currently, Greenland has the highest rate of firearm suicides. According to estimates from the Global Burden of Disease study, about nine people in Greenland died from this cause in 2019, representing 24.52 deaths per 100,000 people.  

In the US, 23,365 people died from firearm suicide in 2019, equivalent to 10.13 deaths per 100,000 people. China, Japan and Singapore have the lowest rates, with less than 0.05 firearm suicide deaths per 100,000 people.  

What prevents firearm suicides?

Several studies have shown that stricter gun control laws are associated with lower rates of firearm suicide.  

For instance, before Australia passed legislation restricting firearm access in 1996, gun-related suicide rates were declining by an average of 3 per cent a year. After the introduction of gun laws, the rate dropped by 7.4 per cent a year.  

Austria saw a similar decline after the introduction of gun controls in 1997. Such measures have been shown to reduce firearm suicide rates in the US too.   

Although firearm suicide rates are lower in the US than they were in 1990, they have been on the rise since 2006, coinciding with increased access to guns.  

Since 2000, the number of firearms produced by manufacturers has nearly tripled, according to the 2021 Firearms Commerce in the United States report from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.  

Because suicide attempts are often impulsive acts, access to guns increases the risk of death. A 2020 study that followed 26 million California residents for 12 years found that men who owned handguns were eight times more likely to die from firearm suicide compared with those who didn’t. For women who owned a handgun, the likelihood increased to 35 times.  

Of all suicide attempts, 8.5 per cent result in death. That rate jumps to 90 per cent when a gun is used. “Gun access doesn’t just mean someone will die by gun versus hanging – it means someone will die by gun instead of surviving,” says Nestadt. “And, importantly, for people who survive a suicide attempt, the vast majority never go on to die by suicide later,” he says. 

Beyond access to firearms, childhood poverty, unemployment and alcohol consumption are also associated with firearm suicide, according to Ilic’s study. 

Need a listening ear? UK Samaritans: 116123; US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 800 273 8255; hotlines in other countries.

Journal reference: PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0267817

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