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Household Guns Linked to Youth Suicides

New research finds kids are more likely to kill themselves if they live in states with high rates of gun ownership.
Gun enthusiasts visit a gun show where thousands of different weapons are displayed for sale on July 10th, 2016, in Fort Worth, Texas.

Gun enthusiasts visit a gun show where thousands of different weapons are displayed for sale on July 10th, 2016, in Fort Worth, Texas.

The suicide rate has risen dramatically in the United States since the turn of the century, and this tragic trend is not limited to adults. The rate at which white teens took their lives rose 70 percent between 2006 and 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among African Americans, the increase was 77 percent.

Experts have suggested a range of reasons, from economic despair to lack of accessible mental-health services. But a new study points to a more immediate and tangible catalyst for these self-induced fatalities: access to a firearm at home, or at the home of a friend or relative.

The study reports that states with greater levels of household gun ownership suffer from higher rates of youth suicide. The equation is crystal clear: When someone gets the urge to commit suicide, having a gun in the house means they're more likely to have the means to carry it out.

"The prevalence of household gun ownership in a state in 2004 was strongly associated with the youth suicide rate over the next decade, even after controlling for the number of youth who reported being depressed," writes a Boston University research team led by Anita Knopov and Michael Siegel.

"This suggests that lowering the overall prevalence of household gun ownership could be an effective strategy to prevent youth suicide."

The study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, compared state-level rates of gun ownership, measured in 2004, with the rate of suicides among 10- to 19-year-olds between 2005 and 2015. The researchers calculated the association between those figures after taking into account a series of variables known to impact teen suicide rates, including mental-health issues, drug use, and binge drinking.

The results were sobering. "In the 10 states with the highest youth suicide rates, the average household gun ownership rate was 52.5 percent, compared with a household gun ownership rate of 20 percent in the 10 states with the lowest suicide rates."

Altogether, the researchers report that the greater likelihood of having access to a firearm accounts for more than half of the state-to-state variance in teen suicide rates.

"A higher prevalence of gun ownership is not associated with merely a shift from non-firearm to firearm suicide," they add. "It is actually associated with an increase in the overall youth-suicide rate."

They note that the percentage of suicide attempts that prove successful is far higher when a firearm is involved. This difference in lethality is reflected in the study's numbers.

"For example, Illinois had a low suicide rate (3.9 suicides per 100,000 youth), despite having a relatively high suicide attempt rate (9.1 percent)," the researchers report. "Iowa had a higher suicide rate (6.6 suicides per 100,000 youth) than Illinois, despite having the third-lowest suicide attempt rate (6.6 percent).

"The most significant difference between these two states," they add, "is that Illinois had a household gun ownership rate of 20.7 percent, whereas Iowa had a household gun ownership rate of 45.7 percent."

These results align with those of a 2018 study, which found that the disproportionate rise in suicides in rural areas is linked to the greater prevalence of guns in rural households. According to this new research, the states with the highest youth suicide rates are Alaska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and Iowa.

Given that there are more firearms-related suicides than homicides, it's odd that this reality seldom enters the nation's gun-control debate. Perhaps we're too uncomfortable discussing suicide—or too invested in the deeply flawed narrative that a gun at home keeps your family safe.

These grim statistics suggest that, for many grieving parents, the opposite turns out to be true.