This article was originally published on RealClearScience.
The CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report is a fascinating treasure trove of the macabre. Recently, it published a chart depicting how Americans committed suicide by age group in 2011. (See above.) While firearms are the most popular method in all age groups, a fascinating trend emerges: As age increases, suffocation (including hanging) becomes less popular and firearms become more popular. Why?
The CDC does not speculate, but perhaps the likeliest explanation is access to firearms. Older Americans are more likely to own guns than younger Americans. According to Pew, 26% of 18-29-year-olds own a gun, while 40% of people aged 50+ own a gun.
The issue of access might also partially explain global data. The U.S. leads the way in firearm suicides. According to a 2008 study by the World Health Organization, nearly 61% of suicides among American men are with guns. No other country comes even close. (2nd place goes to Uruguay, with about 48%.) Among women, America and Uruguay tie for 1st place, with about 36% of suicides being due to firearms. (The next closest country is Argentina, with roughly 26%.) Switzerland, which has a large number of guns per capita, also has a relatively high suicide-by-firearm percentage (among men, but not women).
It is widely believed that people who do not have access to one particular method of suicide will find another way. But, this is incorrect. Suicide is often an impulsive decision. That is why making suicide more difficult appears to reduce the suicide rate. In Prevention and Treatment of Suicidal Behaviour: From Science to Practice (PDF), Keith Hawton describes how the suicide rate fell in the United Kingdom as the composition of the domestic gas supply changed. Sticking one’s head in the oven and inhaling carbon monoxide was a common method of suicide in the UK. However, as the level of carbon monoxide in the gas supply dropped, so did the suicide rate. Hawton goes on to discuss how reducing the availability of firearms also appears to lower the suicide rate.
Currently, the U.S. is experiencing the highest suicide rate in 25 years, and many analysts are referring to a “suicide epidemic.” A sensible policy to lower the suicide rate in America would be to make gun ownership more difficult. But given our current political climate, that idea is almost certainly dead in the water.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “QuickStats: Percentage of Suicide Deaths, by Mechanism and Age Group — United States, 2011.” MMWR 63 (38): 845. (Sept. 26, 2014.)