Guns Far More Likely to Be Used in Suicide Than in Killing Bad Guys

Why firearms are, in fact, a healthcare issue
Jared Keener/Flickr

Vivek Murthy, the president's choice to be the next surgeon general, is running into confirmation trouble because of an adversary that doesn't normally get involved in medical matters: National Rifle Association. The group sent a letter to Senate leaders late last month opposing Murthy's confirmation because he supports extremely strict gun-control measures.

“Mr. Murthy’s not just a gun control supporter, he’s a gun control activist," the group wrote. "And it’s clear that his agenda is to treat a constitutional freedom like a disease.”

The NRA's opposition has been enough to spook a few Senate Democrats and to put Murthy's confirmation in jeopardy.

Murthy otherwise has the bonafides of a surgeon general: He graduated from Harvard and earned both his MD and MBA at Yale. He practices at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, teaches at Harvard Medical School, and is president of Doctors for America, a nonprofit that focuses on healthcare access and has advocated for Obamacare.

One of the NRA's sticking points, though, is that Murthy once tweeted, "Guns are a health care issue.”

It's not immediately clear what Murthy means by that. The NRA claims that guns are used more than 2 million times a year for self-defense (though social scientists think it's closer to 100,000 times.) And it's healthy to want to defend yourself.

Murthy has already said that he plans to use his office to work on obesity, not guns. But looking at the instances in which firearm use ends in death, it becomes clear that there's a health case to be made for gun control, too.

Guns are far more likely to be used in suicides than in killing assailants:

FBI and CDC data on people who used a firearm to kill themselves or to kill a felon (Olga Khazan)

According to the CDC, 19,392 people committed suicide with a gun in 2010, the latest year for which data are available. That same year, meanwhile, the FBI recorded only 230 justifiable homicides (the legal term) in which a private citizen used a firearm to kill a felon during the commission of a felony.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people under 35, and the Harvard School of Public Health has found that "suicide rates among children, women and men of all ages are higher in states where more households have guns." More than six in 10 of the firearm deaths in the past decade were suicides, not homicides. 

And if you're set on ending your life, a gun is the surest way to do it. Eighty-five percent of people who shoot themselves die, versus 1 percent of people who cut themselves and 2 percent of those who attempt to overdose.

"Removing all firearms from one's home is one of the most effective and straightforward steps that household decision-makers can take to reduce the risk of suicide," Harvard health policy professor Matthew Miller said in 2007. "Removing firearms may be especially effective in reducing the risk of suicide among adolescents and other potentially impulsive members of their home."

Even if you don't consider gun control to be a healthcare issue, suicide certainly is, and statistics show that the two are intertwined.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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