23,000 people die annually by gun suicide in the United States.
Experts fear as many as 7,000 additional lives could be lost to gun suicide during 2020 alone as Americans increase new firearm purchases. During the pandemic and race protests, surging gun sales between March and August added an estimated 11.8m more firearms into the US’s arsenal, which was already bloated with approximately 393m civilian-held guns.
“What we know is that where there are more guns, more people die by suicide. And the reason more people die by suicide is that more people die by firearm suicide,” said Deborah Azrael, director of research for the Harvard injury control research center at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
For months, more than a third of American adults have experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression, and phones at crisis helplines have increased with callers worried about their mental health, including suicidal feelings. So-called deaths of despair – fatalities from suicide, opioids or alcoholism – have plagued working-class Americans for decades as their economic prospects plunge amid a radically evolving employment landscape, even absent the virus-prompted economic downturn. Men also struggle with the social stigma and logistical hurdles to seeking emotional or mental help, especially in rural America.
The 20 hardest-hit districts are all in the southern and western US. In 11 districts across Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon and Tennessee, more than 100 residents each year use guns to end their lives – roughly double the national average. By contrast, 17 congressional districts in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and DC experience 10 or fewer firearm suicides annually. Most states in the north-east have much lower gun ownership rates than elsewhere in the country and boast “strong laws” around firearm acquisition.
Almost half of white men and 46% of adults in rural areas own guns, the Pew Research Center reports, demographics that largely overlap with the people most vulnerable to firearm suicide. Although women are more likely to try to kill themselves generally, men and boys comprise 86% of all gun suicides. About 90% of suicide attempts using guns prove lethal, compared with 4% where firearms are not involved. In households with access to a gun, everyone incurs triple the risk of death by suicide.
“Red flag laws”, are a way for family members, law enforcement or other interested parties to petition a court for someone’s firearms to be temporarily confiscated if they present a danger to themselves or others.
“One of the most effective things you can do to help people in crisis,” said Sarah Burd-Sharps, director of research at the Everytown Support Fund, “is to keep a gun out of their hand.”