Mass shootings may grab the headlines, but suicides are by far the leading category of gun death in America. However, most Americans don’t know this, according to a new national poll from APM Research Lab, Call To Mind and Guns & America.
Experts say this misperception is handcuffing suicide prevention efforts.
The poll asked more than 1,000 Americans what they think the leading cause of gun deaths is.
Thirty-three percent of respondents chose homicides outside of mass shootings, while 25% thought that mass shootings caused the most gun deaths. Only 23% correctly guessed that suicides are the leading cause. The remaining respondents chose accidental shootings or said they didn’t know.
Jennifer Stuber, a professor of social work at University of Washington and founder of Forefront Suicide Prevention, said the findings are unsurprising given the intense media coverage of events like mass shootings.
“What I think drives it is the way in which we cover the issues of firearms fatalities in the news and popular culture, whether that’s TV, movies, etc.,” she said.
In reality, fully 60% of gun deaths in the U.S. every year are suicides.
Horrific as they are, mass shootings represent a tiny fraction of gun deaths in America. They account for a few hundred deaths every year, as compared to an average of roughly 19,000 gun suicide deaths. There were 23,854 suicides by firearm in 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And even with a murder rate well above other developed nations, gun homicides, which account for roughly 12,000 deaths per year in the U.S, are a distant second compared to suicides.,
Suicide prevention experts say a lack of understanding about the crisis leaves efforts to lower the suicide rate chronically underfunded, leaving those trying to stem the tide of rising suicide numbers trying to change those misperceptions.
“If the public had a better understanding of that, we might be putting more resources toward the issue of suicide prevention, which is very much under-funded,” Stuber said, “but also we would be thinking about policy solutions perhaps a little differently.”
It was a personal tragedy that led Stuber to become involved in suicide prevention. She started Forefront after her husband used a gun to take his life. She says like many Americans, she didn’t understand the scope of the suicide crisis until being touched by it.
“Until it becomes a part of everyday conversation, we’re not going to see the statistics that you’re reporting in this study turn around,” she said.
And that misinformation can trickle down to local prevention efforts.
For many Americans the instinct is to look away from suicide rather than confronting an uncomfortable issue, said John Reusser, director of The Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline.
Already this year, another Idaho suicide prevention organization shuttered due to lack of donations — this in a state with the sixth highest rate of suicide in the country.
“If there is a mass shooting or a firearm death that’s not suicide, a lot of those will hit the media,” Reusser said. “But unless it’s a celebrity completion of suicide by firearm it’s probably not going to be in the media.”
Reusser said we need to do better at having a public, frank conversation about suicide.
“It’s stigma to some degree,” he said. “It’s denial, which is a defense mechanism and sometimes can be a good defense mechanism, but not around the issue of firearms suicides.”
Another problem is a severe lack of research on the topic, driven in part by legislation in the 1990s that all but ended federal funding for gun studies.
Dr. Mark Rosenberg worked in injury prevention at the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention for two decades and saw research into gun suicides and just about every other aspect of gun violence grind to a halt.
“We don’t really know what works most effectively to prevent suicide, we don’t know what works to prevent school shootings or gun homicides or mass shootings, but we can find out,” he said.
Rosenberg, who is now at the philanthropy group The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, says it’s frustrating that we are failing to tackle what he and most experts see as a largely preventable problem. To stop suicide, though, researchers need the resources to study the root causes of suicide and prevention strategies, a goal Rosenberg says is made more difficult by a bitterly divisive gun rights debate.
“What’s really criminal is not to be looking, not to be trying to find out what works,” he said. “That’s what’s really crazy.”
The survey of 1,009 Americans was conducted from July 16 to 21, 2019, by SSRS with live caller interviewers for APM Research Lab, a division of American Public Media that conducts research projects.
The poll has a margin of error of +/- 3.42 percentage points.
The poll was conducted just weeks before mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, and was done in partnership with Guns & America and Call To Mind, an initiative by American Public Media on mental health.
Resources if you or someone you know is considering suicide:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 or https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
Options For Deaf + Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889
en español: 1-888-628-9454
Veterans Crisis Line & Military Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, Press 1
Crisis Text Line: 741-741
In emergency situations, call 911
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.