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More than Half of Gun Deaths Are Suicides

By: Gerri L. Elder

There has been much talk recently about the U.S. Constitution and gun ownership. The U.S. Supreme Court has now made a clear ruling on the issue, deciding that citizens are permitted to own guns and keep guns in their homes to protect themselves. However, surprising new research shows that very often guns are used to injure or kill their owners rather than any criminal intruder.

Of the almost 31,000 firearm deaths in the United States during 2005, 55 percent were suicides, according to stats from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Daily Press reports that 2005 is the most recent year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published statistics; however these statistics are not unique. In 20 of the last 25 years, gun-related suicides have outnumbered accidental firearm deaths and firearm homicides.

Guns are often used as weapons during the commission of crimes, but during many of these crimes, no shots are actually fired. Suicides account for more shooting deaths than gun deaths that occur during robberies or other crimes.

During 2005, 40 percent of all gun deaths were homicides and 3 percent of the deaths were accidental shootings. In 2 percent of gun deaths, there was an undetermined intent or the shootings were legal killings, such as fatal shots fired by police officers.

Given that 95 percent of gun-related deaths are either suicides or homicides, public health researchers have come to the reasonable conclusion that in homes where guns are kept, there is a much greater likelihood that someone in the home will be killed by a gunshot either through suicide or homicide.

Studies have also indicated that in homes where a suicide has occurred, a gun was three to five times more likely to be present in the home than in a home that did not have a suicide, even after factoring in all other risks.

On June 26, 2008, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, struck down a 32-year-old ban on handguns in Washington, D.C. The court also rejected requirements that guns either be equipped with trigger locks or be kept disassembled. Although the Supreme Court decision was specifically for the gun law in Washington D.C., its effects will be far reaching.

After the handgun ban was adopted in Washington, D.C. in 1976, one public-health study indicated that suicide and homicide rates in the capitol city declined. Shotguns and rifles were allowed to be kept in homes in Washington, D.C. as long as they were registered, kept unloaded and either taken apart or fitted with trigger locks.

The Supreme Court ruling provides that in the event that a criminal enters a person’s home, the gun owner should be allowed to readily reach for their weapon and fire if necessary to protect themselves.

During an intrusion, there is little time to assemble a gun, load it and remove a trigger lock – every moment counts. Likewise, if a person is depressed or arguing with their spouse and a loaded and unlocked gun is in the house, the ruling does not allow for a cooling off period in which someone might rethink murder or suicide.

The handgun ban in Washington, D.C. was supported by The American Public Health Association, the American Association of Suicidology, along with two other groups.

The groups had filed a legal brief in support of upholding the gun ban, challenging arguments that suicidal people will kill themselves in another way if a gun is not available to them. The brief also cited statistics indicating that more than 90 percent of suicide attempts involving guns are successful, while suicide attempts by drug overdoses were only successful in 2 percent of cases.

In the majority opinion, the Supreme Court did not use the word “suicide,” however in a dissenting opinion Justice Stephen Breyer used the word 14 times in voicing his concern about the impact of lifting the handgun ban in Washington D.C. Breyer wrote that is a gun is present for self-defense it can also be used for suicide or domestic violence.

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