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Suicide and Firearms: Statistics, Signs, & What We Can Do

He was in law enforcement, so he handled it through those channels.

First, he paid all the bills and balanced the checkbook so his wife wouldn’t need to worry about those details.

Then he chose a gun–a shotgun, because he believed it would be most effective, after all, he’d been to more than a few of these scenes himself–then he lined and cordoned off a section of the yard with tarps.

Rolling Stone Gun Owner Suicide

He wanted to contain the mess so no one had to clean up after him. And because he didn’t want his wife or other family members to find him, he calmly called the station and asked them to come to collect his body.

In a final act of desperation and pain, my Harley-riding, fifth-degree black belt, law enforcement Uncle took his life.

Suicide is something the gun industry at large has allowed to remain steeped in stigma, something to be discussed in hushed tones but not publicly handled. 

It is past time we bring this issue into the light. Today we’re going to have a blunt talk about suicide, the mental health crisis, and the gun world’s role in all of it.

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Statistically Speaking

According to the CDC the United States had 47,173 suicides in 2019. That makes suicide number ten on the cause-of-death ranking and puts it at approximately 14.5 deaths per 100,000 people.

Between 1999 and 2018 the nation saw a suicide rate increase of 35 percent–that’s when we went from 10.5 suicides per 100,000 to 14.5. 

Gender is a factor. Men have the highest suicide rate: 3.7 times more men will takes their own lives each year than women will, roughly 22.8 men for every 6.2 women. This is reflected by age and gender, too.

WHO Suicide Statistics
WHO Suicide Statistics

Women ages 45 to 64 are most likely to commit suicide while among men the highest rate is found in those 75 years of age and older (the National Institute of Mental Health states it’s men over 65 years of age).

However, it is worth mentioning suicide is the second leading cause of death in both genders between ages 10 to 34 and the fourth leading cause in both genders ages 35 to 54.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention states there were an estimated 1.4 million suicide attempts in 2018. Those are, of course, reported attempts meaning the actual number is much higher.

In fact, the actual suicide number annually is likely higher than reported considering some suicides are wrongly decided to be caused by other means. This means approximately 1 in 26 attempts is successful.

Certain states have more suicides as well. The state I reside in, Texas, has one of the lowest suicide rates in the country at 13.7 per 100,000 people.

State Suicide Rates
State Suicide Rates

It isn’t the absolute lowest; New York and New Jersey claim that at 8.3 per 100,000. Our neighboring states such as Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Colorado are some of the states with the highest rates.

The CDC reports Wyoming as the worst state for suicides at 25.2 people per 100,000 although Montana is close at 24.9 per 100,000.

All this to say we have a ton of statistics about suicide available but we as a nation continue to ignore the mental health crisis. And we as an industry are failing, too.

Guns and Suicide

Taken by the reported numbers alone it does indeed appear as though firearms play a nefarious role in suicides. Nearly half of suicides are completed with firearms.

The CDC reported 23,854 firearm-related suicides in 2017 out of a total of 47,173 total suicide deaths. That puts guns as accounting for 7.3 of those 14.5 deaths by suicide per 100,000.

What’s the second? Suffocation. Poisoning is third.

As you might expect, it’s largely adults using guns to take their lives. Around 1 in 23 gun-related suicides are carried out by children 17 and under, leaving 22 in 23 as adults. 

This is just one of many reasons why adequately securing your firearms is a critical decision.

Guns are not to blame. Guns are inanimate objects. To blame a firearm would be like blaming rope.

Mental Health Care Failures

The cold, hard truth is that the mental health care system in the United States is riddled with failure.

Some claim it was the enormous changes made to sanitariums and deinstitutionalization that was the system’s downfall. Really, it is far more complicated.

Deinstitutionalization was a good idea in general, but it brought with it many problems.

Help I Try Glass

For example, it means we have a significant rate of mental sickness among the homeless and because institutionalization is no longer done, they remain on the streets.

The upside of deinstitutionalization is that it released a lot of people from barbaric conditions and dirty facilities (not to mention a lot of people in sanitariums were not mentally ill at all).

The downside? We no longer have the facilities available to take care of the mentally ill who really need it. 

Having spent considerable time fighting the red tape and idiocy of mental health care for a loved one, for years, I am comfortable saying the system is broken.

Red tape
What it feels like to navigate the American mental health care system.

It isn’t quite broken beyond repair but it’s definitely in trouble. Those who truly need help are hard-pressed to get good help and those who work the system but don’t need help somehow take up beds we desperately need.

Many counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists are sluggish to respond to high-risk situations and others react as though every plea for attention is a legitimate cry for help.

It’s a hard line to walk as a mental health care worker, one requiring skill, experience, and intuition.

I’ve known phenomenal counselors and terrible ones; amazing psychiatrists and worthless ones I suspect got their degrees from a Cracker Jack box.

Worst of all it’s the luck of the draw for most Americans seeking mental health help: will you get a caring, dedicated person treating you or someone who wildly over or under-reacts?

You just don’t know until it happens, and if you don’t understand the state the system is in you might not even realize you’re getting screwed for proper care until it’s too late.

Therapist and patient
Not every mental health professional is a good fit for every patient, but restrictions and a lack of options can leave patients struggling to find effective care.

Here’s how it went for me trying to find an in-patient bed for someone at serious risk: phone calls that began with polite requests that morphed into cajoling that became pleading.

Then came the flat-out demanding they do their jobs and get it done.

Finding an open bed is always a challenge. Limited private funding, lack of awareness, government systems allowed to be defunded, and a systematic general apathy toward mental health as a national priority all play their part in this debacle.

“Do You Own Guns?”

Anytime a firearm owner is asked this question by someone you’re not familiar with, you’ve felt that icy sensation in your bones.

In a mental health situation, if you say yes you or your loved one are immediately flagged as higher risk and handled with greater caution.

But if you say no, are you robbing yourself or your loved one of proper treatment?

cross roads
Choosing what information to reveal can be a stressful decision.

Safe storage goes a long way and by safe storage, I mean not only properly locking up your own guns but taking temporary possession of firearms belonging to someone in crisis.

And if you are the one in a crisis that means being willing to hand your guns to a trusted individual until the time at which you are ready to take them back.

Safe gun storage
Real friends lock up their guns and offer you a safe place to store your guns when you need it.

Note: regarding holding onto someone’s guns until they reach a healthier place mentally, you must know the laws in your state. Laws vary.

Does Owning A Gun Put You At Greater Risk Of Suicide?

No, it does not. While some studies have shown a correlational connection between firearm ownership and suicide, the mere act of owning a firearm does not put you at more risk.

In 2007 Harvard School of Public Health Assistant Professor of Health Policy and Management Matthew Miller and some of his assorted colleagues reported that states where there are a lot of guns, there are more suicides.

The headlines that followed lead many to believe that guns are the root cause of suicide, and they are wrong.

There are several issues one can take with the study as a whole, but the most fundamental issue was that of media reporting the findings in inadequate ways and the incredibly inaccurate statements the lead researcher made.

If one actually reads the study, it finds that guns are lethal.

Suicide attempts made with guns are by far the most lethal, while firearms only account for 5% of fatal and nonfatal attempts–over 90% of suicidal acts by firearms result in death.

We enjoy our guns but we know–even small mistakes with them can be deadly.

Drugs, primarily over the counter ones, make up 75% of suicide attempts, but only 3% of those attempts result in death.

While the study tried to decide that guns were responsible for suicides–the facts do not support this conclusion, even in the study itself.

In reality, where there is a suicidal will, there is a way. Guns may be more instantly effective than other methods but people trying to take their own lives do everything from wrecking cars to jumping into busy traffic to self-immolation.

A gun on its own does not make someone suicidal any more than a gun on its own causes mass murders. The intent begins with the person. The person controls the object. 

If a person is already suicidal and they have access to firearms–they are more likely to successfully commit suicide.

The Gun World Responsibility

Right now the only prominent program geared toward helping those at risk of suicide is being run by the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

The NSSF program, which was undertaken alongside the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), was a brand-new concept at its inception in 2016.

The idea of the program was to begin educating gun owners about prevention, warning signs, and safe storage. But even though it started in 2016 it wasn’t until SHOT 2019 that I recall seeing the program publicly pushed on the show floor and in the media room.

That sticks in my memory because it was more than a year after the suicide of one of our own, Bob Owens of Bearing Arms.

Bob Owens
Bob Owens

Bob took his life with one of his personal firearms on a street corner in the subdivision where he lived with his family.

Immediately beforehand he posted to Facebook, writing “In the end, it turns out that I’m not strong. I’m a coward, and a selfish son of a bitch. I’m sorry.”

It was his co-editor Jenn Jacques who summed things up later via an article on the Bearing Arms website: “In the end, all that matters is that [Bob] will be sorely missed, and that the truth is that we will never know what truly happened. What we do know is that while Bob was a huge part of the 2A world, he was first and foremost a son, brother, husband, father, and friend.”

The loss of Bob Owens was an incredible one, one that continues to leave a mark on the industry to this day. He was an awesome, driven man.

Was it known that he was depressed? Yes.

Did anyone think it would happen when it did? No.

It is profoundly difficult to predict these things even when you know what to look for, are aware of what behavior is a red flag, and are tuned in as closely as possible to someone’s pain.

The gun world needs to drop the stigma attached to depression and suicidal ideation.

Nearly everyone is afraid to talk about it because, guns, and worried they’ll risk their careers or gun collection by bucking the trend and opening their mouths.

It’s an understandable fear–how many of us say “no” when a doctor asks if we have guns?–but it is doing more harm than good. This inability to have open, frank discussions about mental health is costing lives.

Patient talking to doctor
Getting adequate healthcare is hard enough without feeling like you’re walking into a minefield of questions.

That is far too high a price to pay, in my opinion. It’s time for an open dialogue.

It took almost three years for an industry publication to take an article about suicide and firearms, making Pew Pew Tactical far braver and wiser than the biggest print publications in the industry.

I’ve spent three years querying and having private conversations.

I’m absolutely disgusted by the editorial staff members in the industry who felt and feel it is too touchy a topic to cover.

Drop the stigma.

Start covering this honestly and educating gun owners about what they can do. It is our responsibility to work for better mental health care and treatment in the gun world.

Knowing the Signs

Warning Sign

On their website at AFSP.org, the ASFP lists the following as warning signs someone is suicidal:

Talk

Drowning person

If a person talks about:

  • Killing themselves
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Having no reason to live
  • Being a burden to others
  • Feeling trapped
  • Unbearable pain

Behavior

Sad Man

Behaviors that may signal risk, especially if related to a painful event, loss or change:

  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Looking for a way to end their lives, such as searching online for methods
  • Withdrawing from activities
  • Isolating from family and friends
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Visiting or calling people to say goodbye
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Aggression
  • Fatigue

Mood

Woman Crying with a Smile Sign

People who are considering suicide often display one or more of the following moods:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of interest
  • Irritability
  • Humiliation/Shame
  • Agitation/Anger
  • Relief/Sudden Improvement

Risk Factors

Some of this is genetic. It’s well-proven that depression and other mental health issues have genetic links, meaning a familial history of suicide raises your risk factor.

Measuring device concept

A recent suicide of a friend or loved one can also be a trigger because someone left behind might think it seems like a legitimate way out since their friend did it (or perhaps that life isn’t worth it anymore without that person around). 

Other risk factors include extreme stress, trauma, chronic pain, abuse, substance abuse, brain injury, and various mental illnesses whether treated or untreated.

brain-scan-ADHD

Never assume you know what someone is going through.

Especially never believe their social media feed because it only shows what a person wants to let you see.

That’s not to say you should ignore what might be potential cries for help but more you shouldn’t assume someone is fine because their Facebook page is full of funny memes and seemingly happy pictures of their lives.

Those moments are only a snapshot in time and do not paint an entire picture.

What You Can Do

Ask Them, Talk To Them

The idea that asking someone if they’re suicidal can make them suicidal has been widely disproven.

Of course, someone answering no to that question doesn’t mean they’re telling the truth, either. It’s vitally important you pay attention and read between the proverbial lines.

Two Men Talking

Don’t just casually drop in and ask if someone’s okay; be present as a reliable friend or confidante. If you’re concerned about someone to make a concerted effort to keep tabs on their situation and mental health.

Don’t badger them but do put in the effort and show you care.

Safe Storage of Firearms

Store your firearms properly. Lock up our guns in a safe and store the ammunition separately.

That isn’t just for general safety and responsible gun ownership.

Lock it up–you never know if you’ll save a life.

It isn’t just to keep them out of the hands of children.

It might sound like a small thing but that little separation and stretch of time required to unlock multiple objects to access the guns and ammo means more than you realize.

If you or a loved one is in crisis, an instantly available, loaded firearm is different than one that takes effort. No, it won’t always matter, but it’s a start. And if you’re really concerned, get the guns out of your house. Change the digital code on your safe.

hold-my-logo-grey
Organizations like Hold My Guns can help connect you with voluntary, safe off-site storage for your guns.

Find a way to protect yourself and those you love. 

Mental Health Care Reform

Fight for mental health care reform. This means getting involved outside your comfort zone.

It means working to increase awareness that those in need of help should be able to get it free of judgment or fear of loss of gun rights or gun ownership.

It means fighting to get health insurance providers–including Medicare and Medicaid–to provide better mental health coverage. 

On a grander scale, the entire nation needs a policy overhaul. Both community organizations and the private sector need to work together in financing and advocacy.

Policies should be changed and updated for better mental health screening and earlier treatment.

Untreated Mental Illness Graphic Psychiatric Times
This graphic from 2017 shows the scale of how untreated mental illness affects us all. (Psychiatric Times)

For example, a depressed, anxiety-ridden friend of mine was recently told they didn’t need to be on anti-depressants or anxiety meds yet because the doctor wanted to “be sure [they] experienced the full range of pain and emotions” of their situation…

I’d love to see that doctor lose his license but that’s another story entirely.

Old-school doctors clearly need better CE classes on the importance of mental health care; newly-christened doctors need to learn tact, empathy, and to not be anti-gun or judgmental because, quite frankly, guns are none of their business.

Access must be improved which reaches as far as the need for a larger number of properly-trained therapists, counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists as well as the need for better healthcare.

How Things Really Are

Understand that we are in a climate where admitting to owning guns makes you suspect of any number of things.

When doctors ask those screening questions people saying they have guns are flagged as higher risk. People struggling with acute or chronic depression are not reaching out for the help they need because they are all too aware of the risks of getting help when you’re a gun owner.

Red Flags
If your mental health is in question, any “red flag” can be used against you. Still, you deserve to get the care you deserve when you need it.

Think your guns can’t or won’t be taken from you for mental health reasons? Not only can they be but it’s been done, done based on flimsy, flaky word-of-mouth from relatives, neighbors, and angry ex’s.

Ideally, the gun world would fight for laws protecting the gun rights of those seeking mental health care.

Red flag (ERPO) laws should be flatly illegal. Just because someone claims a person is upset or bothered doesn’t give the government the right to seize their firearms.

You Are Worth Protecting

Something I’m constantly writing is that you must believe you are worth protecting.

This is wildly difficult for victims of abuse. There is another side to that belief, though: you are worth protecting even if it means handing over your guns.

Positive Signs

Guns are inanimate objects, hunks of plastic and metal, and they are totally replaceable. You cannot be replaced.

If getting help means you lose your guns, so be it. What good are your guns if you’re not around to use them? What good are your guns for protecting your family if you’re not there to carry them for self-defense?

If you need help, get it. Guns are not now and will never be more valuable than your life.

If you’re in an immediate crisis situation, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-274-TALK (8255). You can also text the Crisis Text Line by texting “TALK” to 741-741.

View the NSSF-AFSP Suicide Prevention Program, as well as their suicide prevention toolkit to learn how to enable yourself to help your loved ones stay safe. Also, check out NSSF Project Childsafe to learn how to protect your kids from firearms accidents. You can also visit American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at their website, afsp.org.

Have you or a loved one experienced a mental health crisis as a gun owner? Have any tips to help other gun owners get through an emergency safely? Please let us know in the comments, and please be respectful, too. Secure your firearms with one of the Best Gun Safes.

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15 Leave a Reply

  • Commenter Avatar
    Newbe$

    Congratulations: @Kat and @PewPew: Very glad to see (another) well researched and written article on your site. I am a big fan of fact based discussions and therefor well informed and intelligent decisions. For your advertisers: Since joining the "firearms world" earlier this year, I have "invested" above $10K - much of it based on recommendations / reviews and background articles on this PewPew site. And yes, I will keep gladly and attentive reading and following you. :)

    November 4, 2020 1:57 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    LazrBeam

    Veterans, don’t forget veterans! 22 a day. Especially those who have deployed. The US Department of Veterans Affairs has a 24/7 Crisis Line for veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide and those who KNOW a veteran in crisis. 800-273-8255.

    October 5, 2020 9:22 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    DP

    This is an important article to see. Thank You. And speaking specifically to some of the data men need to quit associating their mental health with weakness, or cowardly, ect. Its toxic and only helps to push us towards anger and aggression which many often convince themselves are signs of strength and masculinity. We're humans, we have feelings and emotions and talking to others about them is healthy and good for us. There are systems out there for you. Unfortunately in moments when you're least likely to want to reach out to them you do need to find the strength to do so.

    October 2, 2020 10:07 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Old Guy

    Very good article. I Will forward to others.

    October 2, 2020 8:29 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Whit Collins

    Wonderful article! I hope many people have the opportunity to read it. Thanks for starting the conversation and moving to remove the stigma of suicide within the Gun word. As they say, 1 is too many.

    October 2, 2020 7:05 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Russ

    Thank you. Since the start of the pandemic I’ve lost a cousin, a friend, and my wife’s friend to suicide by firearm. One of them was a veteran. Two of them were fathers. It’s incredibly hard for everyone involved and this article is a great step in illuminating and addressing the high cost of depression, mental health, and suicide.

    October 2, 2020 4:57 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    AK

    Thank you for this article and for sharing. I'm not sure I followed though one thing. You're against "red flag" laws, which I'm not sure are all the same or not, but mentioned that some states don't always have a law that allow loved ones to take possession of another person's firearms should it be unsafe for them to have them for mental health reasons. Could you perhaps at some point draw out what legal changes should be made from your experience/perspective that could allow designated family, friends to intervene and do so legally? Appreciate your bravery in discussing this important subject.

    October 1, 2020 10:24 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      David, PPT Editor

      It depends on the state but it's not uncommon for an area to have red flag laws that allow strangers to report someone they suspect of being a danger to themselves or others, but also not allow the "loaning" of firearms.

      In California for example it's illegal to loan firearms or to have possession of a firearm that is not registered to you.

      If a friend of mine wanted me to hold on to his firearms for safe keeping while he was going through mental health issues, the only legal way of doing that in California is to fully transfer them to me. Meaning we have to go to an FFL, pay CA state fees of almost $50, plus the FFL fees of at least $40-75 per firearm, then I have to wait 10 days before I can pick them up at the FFL.

      And we would have to do that process all over again when I return the firearms to him.

      This process is expensive, time consuming, and traumatic.

      October 2, 2020 8:01 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    KT

    I'm very impressed with this article. Mental health issues are so important and people ought to know how to talk about them. Thank you, Kat and Pew Pew. My hat's off to you.

    October 1, 2020 8:34 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Gabe

    Thank you for this article, this is subject that has been too long neglected and ignored. These are the kind of issues we need to address in the gun community.

    October 1, 2020 11:07 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Blurryface

    Thank you for raising awareness and speaking out on this issue. It's time for change. It's time to tackle this head-on!

    October 1, 2020 10:23 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Pete

    I applaud you for writing and publishing this article.

    October 1, 2020 8:54 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    J. Hoffstadt

    Right on Kat! We need to stand up and admit this is a problem that needs to be addressed, NOW!

    October 1, 2020 7:54 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Grunthos

    Thank you

    October 1, 2020 2:51 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    JEB

    I am a licensed mental health therapist in Texas. Right now the government is planning to cut Medicare reimbursement for mental health therapists and psychologists by 10.6% come 2021. In 2016, while I was working in TN at a community mental health center, Obamacare cut my income by 30%. The cut was to licensed therapists who have experience and more education. They did not cut the unlicensed therapists income who could only see Medicaid clients. I could have worked at Costco and made $2 an hour less. For the red tape and government controls and paperwork the government forced on us that was needless, I walked and went into another line of work and after relocating, I have gone back into the profession part time. Now they want to cut reimbursements again. Is it worth it for me to take a 10.6% cut? I love the work but the bills and malpractice insurance and continuing education hours still need to be paid for.

    September 30, 2020 9:44 pm
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