The overall death rate from gun violence has remained unchanged in the United States for more than a decade, but suicides by firearms are now more common than homicides, a new study shows.
In 2012, nearly two-thirds, or 64 percent, of deaths from firearm violence were suicides, compared to 57 percent of deaths in 2006. The growth in suicide is especially prominent among white males beginning in early adulthood.
“Suicide by firearm is far more common than homicide,” says Garen J. Wintemute, professor of emergency medicine and director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at University of Caliornia, Davis.
“Over the past 30 years, firearm suicides have exceeded homicides even when homicide rates were at their highest in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But, since 2006, the gap between the two has been widening, with firearm homicides decreasing and suicides increasing.”
Published online in the Annual Review of Public Health, the analysis of data for firearm homicides and suicides by age, gender, and race/ethnicity reveals other emerging patterns. For example, homicides among black men and women rose steeply in adolescence and peaked in early adulthood before falling steadily thereafter. In contrast, suicide rates among white men increased in adolescence but continued to rise throughout the lifespan.
When assessing the number of deaths from firearm violence in 2012 for males by age and race/ethnicity, the research shows that 88.7 percent of all deaths among black males aged 15 to 44 were caused by homicide and that 89.2 percent of deaths among white males aged 35 to 64 were from suicide. When researchers corrected for population growth in both groups, the rate of death among white males aged 35 to 64 had increased by 29.1 percent.
Homicides and Young Black Men
“Suicides among white males accounted for nearly half of the deaths from firearm violence during 2012, and suicide among white men is increasing,” Wintemute says. “The increase offsets any decline we might have seen in overall firearm-related mortality during the 21st century.”
As previous public-health studies have shown, homicides are concentrated to a remarkable degree among black males through much of the lifespan, with rates rising at adolescence and peaking at ages 20 to 24.
“The overall death rate from firearm violence in young black males is very high, and there has been little net change since 1999,” Wintemute says.
Firearm homicides among black males aged 20 to 29 are five times higher than those among Hispanic males and at least 20 times higher than for white males. Homicide rates for black females are also higher than rates for Hispanics and whites.
In 2012, firearm homicides were the leading cause of death for black men ages 15 to 24. Among white men, Hispanic men, and black women in that age range, firearm violence ranked second after unintentional injuries.
Suicides and Older White Men
The data show that suicides are concentrated among whites, with the risk among white men steadily increasing throughout their lifespans and steeply rising from ages 70 to 74. By 85 and older, suicide for white males was 3.2 times that of Hispanic males and five times that of black males.
Suicide risk among white females, while occurring at a lower rate than white males, also shows steady increases from ages 10 to 14 through ages 45 and 49. The suicide rates for white females also were higher than for black or Hispanic females of all ages.
“Contrary to popular belief, mental illness by itself is not a leading contributor to interpersonal firearm violence,” Wintemute says. “But mental illness, chiefly depression, is an important contributor to risk for suicide.”
According to the General Social Survey, more than 50 million people in the United States own firearms. Firearm ownership increases risk of firearm homicide or suicide at the population, household, and individual levels.
“Focusing on known risk factors and predictors for firearm violence can have a broad impact. We know alcohol and controlled substance abuse are important predictors of future risk for violence directed at others or at oneself, whether or not mental illness is also present, Wintermute says.
“With additional research, we can identify other interventions that can reduce firearm violence, which is responsible for more than 30,000 deaths each year.”
*Image of a gun by (Woody Hibbard/Flickr)