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There are, of course, other explanations for why the suicide problem is largely hidden from public discussion. For the overwhelming majority of Americans, who never experience suicidal thoughts, the threat of attack from another person is just much scarier, and more likely, than the threat of self-harm. We obsess over homicides because we feel we have much less control over what another person may do to us than what we may do to ourselves. And the unfortunate shame that many families feel surrounding the suicide of a loved one drives the discussion around causes and interventions underground. Murder is public spectacle. Suicide is private tragedy. Both are often the result of too-easy access to guns.
Michael Scholtes still has dark moments, 25 years after his last attempt to kill himself. “There are these moments when I am sure that suicide is the right choice,” he explains. “But they’re moments. It takes time to plan it. It takes time to build up the courage to follow through on those plans. And it takes an awful lot of effort, effort that is not easy when my depression is strong.” Knowing this, Scholtes, a Lutheran pastor, has made sure that a quick, effortless suicide is not available to him. Scholtes doesn’t own a gun, and this decision for him is purely about self-preservation. “If I had a gun and ammunition at my disposal?” he muses. “So much less time. So much less effort. So much less time to change my mind, and so much less chance of a failing attempt.”
Suicidal thoughts are dark, curious creatures. For most individuals who have them, they are temporary and passing, as Scholtes describes. One study of young people who had survived a suicide attempt found that nearly half of them waited less than 20 minutes to make the attempt after the first suicidal thought entered their mind. And so the most important task for someone who experiences one of these moments is to find assistance and try to wait it out. Nine out of 10 people who survive a suicidal attempt never end up taking their life.
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But getting through the dark moments is difficult when quick lethal violence is right at hand. Guns are used in just 6 percent of all suicide attempts, but are responsible for 54 percent of successful suicide attempts. This makes a grim sort of sense: When you shoot a gun into your temple, it does what it’s intended to. That’s why 85 percent of suicide attempts with a firearm are lethal. Just 3 percent of suicide attempts by drug overdose are fatal.
Global suicide statistics cast doubt on blaming our self-harm epidemic on guns alone. If gun availability were the primary driver of suicides, then why would a country like Japan, a nation with almost no private gun ownership, have a higher suicide rate than the United States?