The Other Gun-Violence Problem: Suicide

The Newark Star-Ledger reports on the disturbing number of suicides among police officers in New Jersey -- sadly a national phenomenon as well. The unusual stress of police work and its effect on family life plays a large part, but so does availability of firearms. An opinion piece in the New England Journal of Medicine observed a few years ago:

In 2005, the most recent year for which mortality data are available, suicide was the second-leading cause of death among Americans 40 years of age or younger. Among Americans of all ages, more than half of all suicides are gun suicides. In 2005, an average of 46 Americans per day committed suicide with a firearm, accounting for 53% of all completed suicides. Gun suicide during this period accounted for 40% more deaths than gun homicide. [emphasis added]

A study at the Harvard School of Public Health confirmed the elevated risk of death by suicide in households where firearms are kept -- even after controlling for "measures of poverty, urbanization, unemployment, drug and alcohol dependence and abuse, and mental illness."

On the other side, some of the states with the highest rate of firearms ownership -- Wyoming, South Dakota, Alaska -- also have the lowest suicide rates, so it's worth studying other factors. I have no legislative or policy formula to propose, only a change of focus. Constitutional issues aside, the attention of both sides of the gun debate to street crime and property crime may have obscured the elephant in the room -- the ultimate unintended consequence.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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