“Gun violence.” The media loves it because it drives up ratings. Politicians love it because they can make bold calls for gun control or take firm stands against it.
Gun control advocates and politicians are fond of padding the numbers by adding suicides to the total while focusing the audience’s attention on sensational murders such as Columbine, Sandy Hook or San Bernardino. In the interest of keeping the public horrified and compliant they don’t go out of their way to say just how much padding the suicides provide.
In fact, they don’t say much about the suicides at all.
But suicide is the real driver in the violent death statistics.
In the ten years from 2005 to 2014, the latest year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released data, the violent death rate per 100,000 population has increased 7%.
However, the overall homicide rate has dropped more than 19% and murders committed with firearms are down nearly 18%.
In 2014, according to the CDC, suicides accounted for 72.4% of all violent deaths (homicides plus suicides). Nearly two-thirds of all firearm-related deaths were suicides. The same statistics show that homicides involving a gun – the ones everyone tries to scare us with – accounted for just 19% of all violence-related deaths in 2014.
For a little perspective on the magnitude of the problem, consider this: the not-for-profit Gun Violence Archives says there were 280 mass shooting incidents in 2014, of these, 144 resulted in one or more deaths and 18 met the FBI’s standards for a mass shooting (four or more deaths). The death toll from these incidents was 272.
In that same year, the CDC says there were 42,773 suicides by all methods and 21,334 involved a gun.
This isn’t to say that violence isn’t a problem. It is. Especially the high homicide rate among younger black men. But in our efforts to inflate the threat of gun violence, we have basically ignored the far larger problem of suicide.
The Perfect Storm
When it comes to risk factors, white males, especially those over 45, represent the perfect storm as almost every factor converges.
Compared to other groups, white men over 45 are more likely to be conservative. They are also more likely to be gun owners and less willing to give up their guns.
As is typical of men, they are also more reluctant to seek medical help or counseling – or even talk to anyone about issues that might cause them to consider suicide.
While the percentage of white male suicides involving a gun have declined 4.8% in the past ten years, that percentage is still the highest of any major demographic group. In 2014, when guns were used in less than half of all suicides, they were used in two-thirds of white male suicides.
Hispanic males have a lower rate of suicide but that rate is rising. It’s up 40% since 2005.
Suicides among black males have seen the lowest rate of increase, up just 9%. However, black males are far more likely to be murdered than to commit suicide. They are the only major racial group for which this is true.
Women are increasingly at risk
While men still have the lead in numbers, the rate of suicide among women is rising faster.
Firearms play a much smaller role in female suicides. White women use a gun more often than women in other racial groups but guns are involved in only about 33% of white female suicides. Among Hispanic women, the rate is about 17%.
As is true of black males, black women are more likely to be murdered than to commit suicide. However, the suicide rate among black women has risen faster than black men: it’s up 17% over the past ten years. if black lives truly do matter, then all black lives matter and should be just as important when we try to find real solutions.
By age groups, the peak range for white males and females is 50-54 years of age. Since they account for 82% of all suicides, whites pretty well determine the overall range. The peak range for black and Hispanic, males and females is 20-24 years.
The first step to real solutions is for the media and politicians to go cold turkey on “gun violence” and start being honest with the public. The problem is violence and the largest part of it is suicide.
California is a good case in point. Since 2004, the Golden State has enacted some of the toughest gun laws in the nation. An assault weapons ban, mandatory safety training, a requirement that almost all transfers of a firearm go through a dealer, a background check that’s tougher than the federal NICS check, waiting periods, limits on handgun purchases and limits on the types of firearms that can be legally sold. Pretty much everything gun control advocates have wished for.
Since 2004, the percentage of California suicides involving a firearm has dropped from almost 42% to about 38%. However, the total suicide rate has increased almost 15%. In terms of actual numbers, the tally has risen 25% for all suicides but just 16% for gun suicides.
The strange thing is that Arizona and Texas, both of which have less restrictive gun laws and higher suicide rates, have seen similar reductions in the use of guns in suicide.
No one seems to have any idea why suicides are on such an upswing. Everybody is screaming about the NRA blocking studies of gun violence. But nobody seems to be making a big deal about new studies of suicide.
Up until the turn of the century the suicide rate, like the homicide rate, had been falling. For some reason, the trends diverged around 1999-2000. Even the Great Recession didn’t cause a significant spike and the recovery hasn’t delivered a reduced rate – or even a significant slowing of the growth in the suicide rate.
Suicide may not be as sexy or headline-grabbing as a crazed gunman in a school or office building but it claims far more victims. And while crazed gunmen are still fairly rare, suicides aren’t.
Perhaps in addition to their relatively low scare-the-public value, it may be that the reason suicides get short shrift is that doing something about them will cost money and require answers to some tough questions, especially for politicians that have gutted the U.S. mental health care system. Journalists may face a few tough questions of their own, such as why they haven’t checked their facts and reported on this problem.
For now, it is time that we all quit playing numbers games and focus on why these deaths happened instead of how.