U.S. gun deaths data: Nearly two-thirds are suicides

The people most affected by gun violence in the United States don’t look much like the images of shooting victims on television, movies or the news, according to a recently released study from UC Davis.

They’re old. They’re white. And they haven’t fallen victim to a violent crime – nearly two-thirds all Americans who died from gunshot wounds in 2012 killed themselves.

“People think of firearm violence as a crime problem, but the most fatal firearm violence is self-inflicted,” Garen Wintemute, the director of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program, told The Sacramento Bee. “And when it comes to suicide, firearm violence is an old, white guy problem.”

His study, which analyzed firearm deaths from 2003 through 2012, found that while gun-related deaths have remained fairly constant for years, homicide rates have dipped while suicide rates keep climbing.

Since researchers began keeping track of how people die, suicides have always outpaced homicides in the United States, Wintemute said. As of 2012, an average of 82 people died every day as a result of gunshot wounds, the study showed. Of those, 50 were suicides.

He listed risk factors that have been proved to increase a person’s likelihood of falling victim to gun violence: history of substance abuse, early exposure to violence, criminal histories and mental illnesses. So, too, does the ease of access to guns in the U.S., Wintemute said. More than 50 million people in the country are estimated to own firearms.

“America is not an inherently violent society any more than other societies we would compare ourselves to, in Europe and so on. The difference is we insert a dangerous machine, a firearm, into that equation and these violent encounters become fatal,” said Wintemute. “We need to do several different things at the same time: We could deny people with a long history of alcoholism the ability to purchase firearms. We try and do that with drug abuse, but there are no laws on the books that have to do with alcohol. We could also do more with other risk factors, like mental illness, which isn’t so much an issue with homicides, but is a huge part of the suicide problem.”

Psychologist and suicide prevention activist Sally Spencer-Thomas, who runs the Carson J Spencer Foundation in Denver, said removing or restricting a suicidal person’s access to weapons could save lives.

“It’s a myth that people are so determined they’ll swap means at the last minute,” Spencer-Thomas said. “Over time, people are rehearsing this in their head. It becomes an escape fantasy. They have a very detailed idea of how it’s supposed to go, and many don’t have a plan B. So, if you get the means out of their hands – if you remove the gun or put up barriers on bridges or blister packaging on potentially lethal medications – and you help them get to the other side of this white-hot crisis, they won’t go back. You’ve saved their life.”

She suggested that family members put firearms in a lockbox when they suspect a person may be suicidal and said members of the gun community should also be trained in what questions to ask and what signs to look for when selling firearms to folks who might be thinking about harming themselves.

But Sam Paredes, the executive director of Gun Owners of California, said the problem isn’t access to firearms. He pointed to a lack of social services meant to aid the country’s addicted and mentally ill populations and a lack of education and outreach that address violence and proper use of firearms as the true contributors to violence trends.

“We live in a country where you’re innocent until proven guilty, and the fact that you might commit a crime sometime in the future isn’t enough to restrict access to firearms,” Paredes said. “We all might commit a crime sometime in the future; who gets to draw that line?” Paredes said. “We need to focus on education programs to help teachers and programs and counselors and parents dealing with folks with addiction problems, abuse problems, behavioral problems work to resolve those issues.”

That, too, is part of the puzzle, Spencer-Thomas agreed.

When it comes to the most affected population, older white men, the challenge is combating culture and years of conditioning that have taught them that asking for help is weak, she said.

“Rather than white-knuckling through tough times until things become catastrophic, we, as a community, need to find ways to engage men earlier in the process with peers, support groups, spiritual health organizations and a message that says ‘Stop trying to do this all on your own,’” she said. “When men hit that wall, they feel completely alone. We need to have men in positions of power admitting that they’ve been through this so that men can understand and appreciate on a much deeper level how the journey to recover has made for a stronger man in the end.”

The cost of firearm injuries in the U.S. totaled more than $174 billion as of 2010, according to the study. The split between homicides and suicides in this country is more than numeric, Wintemute’s research showed. It’s demographic.

The population most afflicted by gun-related homicides are young black males.

Of all black males who died between the ages of 15 and 44 during the decade Wintemute studied, nearly 89 percent were shot and killed by another person. The study does not specify by whom or under what circumstances a person pulled the trigger.

DeAngelo Mack, of the Sacramento Violence Intervention Program, said of all those young black men who die as a result of firearm violence, there are even more who survive horrific gunshot injuries.

“I’ve had clients come in with six, seven gunshot wounds and they’re still alive,” Mack said. “Violence leads to violence. Most of the clients that come through our doors have been affected by violence early in their lives: witnessing abuse, seeing family members killed, experiencing it firsthand.”

Mack pointed to the pervasive culture of violence in pop culture and the media as well as among impoverished communities as being at the root of these shootings. He said Wintemute’s study rang true to what he sees every day in the Sacramento area.

“At that young age, starting at 15, we see kids trying to emulate the behavior they see on TV or in movies and video games – that mentality of taking things by force,” he said. “We need to address a lot of factors to change that: socialization, poverty, exposure to violence. It’s not easy.”

Call The Bee’s Marissa Lang at (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter at @Marissa_Jae.

If you or someone you know is exhibiting warning signs of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK. Warning signs of suicide include, but are not limited to:

▪ Talking about wanting to die

▪ Looking for a way to kill oneself

▪ Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose

▪ Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain

▪ Talking about being a burden to others

▪ Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs

▪ Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly

▪ Sleeping too little or too much

▪ Withdrawing or feeling isolated

▪ Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge

▪ Displaying extreme mood swings