The Connection Between Gun Deaths and Suicide

Written by Fathma Rahman

I had just finished up my first week working at Brady. I was out with new friends, celebrating a summer night in DC on a rooftop somewhere downtown. We were dressed like the young professionals we aspired to be, gossiping about our respective office drama and politics, making plans for the weeks to come, and brushing off any fears that our upcoming senior years would be anything but an exhilarating end to our college years akin to the movies. We were planning for a future we assumed was an absolute. 

But then I checked my email and saw the subject line, “A loss in our Wildcat family.” 

It was from my university’s Dean of Students, notifying everyone that a student had died. This was the 5th time in my three years of college that I had received an email about a fellow student taking their own life. 

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between 10 and 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But mental health and suicide are not just issues impacting younger demographics — it’s affecting all of America. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for all ages, following behind more publicly recognized illnesses like heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

We are raised to think about death as an inevitable part of the life cycle, but that line of thought does not apply to deaths by suicide. Like many other epidemics, suicide is preventable, and sadly, on the rise. If we don’t do something about this epidemic now, suicide rates will continue to rise and we will keep losing valuable human lives to an avoidable end.

Of course, the rise in suicide deaths is not the the only epidemic that our country is facing. We have also seen an alarming rise in gun deaths in America — but what we’re not realizing is how interconnected these two epidemics really are.

CDC data on firearm mortality shows that nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths in America are, in fact, suicides. Homicides make up just about half the number of deaths that result from suicides. What this means is that an overwhelming majority of gun violence is self-inflicted, taking more lives than murder or any other cause.

Average Gun Death Every Year (2012-2016)*
Cause of Gun Death Number of Gun Deaths
Total 35,141
Died from suicide 21,637
Murdered 12,246
Killed unintentionally 500
Killed by legal intervention 479
Died but intent unknown 279
* Data courtesy of CDC, averaged by Brady Center

Relatedly, CDC data on suicide shows that guns are the leading method of suicide resulting in death, representing half of all deaths by suicide in 2016. With other methods, there is the factor of time, which allows for the opportunity to stop or seek help mid-attempt. That opportunity does not exist when using a gun, especially not when the gun is already in the home (as is the case for one-third of Americans) which further decreases the amount of time that someone has to change their mind.

Suicide by Method (2016)*
Suicide Method Number of Deaths
Total 44,965
Firearm 22,938
Suffocation 11,641
Poisoning 6,698
Other 3,687
* Data courtesy of CDC

The correlation between gun deaths and suicide is undeniable. But if we can find a way to reduce the number of suicides by guns, we not only will decrease the number of gun deaths in America by nearly two-thirds, we will also reduce the number of deaths by suicide by half.

So what can we do? First, we need to pass extreme risk laws in every state and at the federal level. Extreme risk laws allow family members and police to temporarily remove guns from people who present a risk to themselves or others. If someone is considering suicide and they get their hands on a gun, there’s only a 15 percent chance the attempt will not result in their death.

Passing safe storage laws is also vital to reducing the number of firearm-based suicides. With 4.6 million children and teens living in homes with unlocked, loaded guns — a demographic where suicide is a major leading cause of death — we need to be able to hold gun owners accountable for securing guns in their homes so that they are inaccessible to anyone except the registered gun owner.

There are of course many other steps we need to take to change the statistics around deaths by suicide. Increased access to mental health services and funding for research are also key to understanding the issue and offering quality support to those in need. But, if we seek the cure for this epidemic on many fronts, then we stand a greater likelihood of success — and reducing access to guns when people are in crisis is a logical, and necessary, part of that cure.

September is suicide prevention month. I ask that you all contact your representatives and urge them to support gun policies that will save lives. But most importantly, I ask that you all reach out to your loved ones and tell them you care.