Do States with Easier Access to Guns have More Suicide Deaths by Firearm?
Nearly half a million lives (480,622) were lost to suicide from 2010 to 2020. During the same period, the suicide death rate increased by 12%, and as of 2009, the number of suicides outnumbered those caused by motor vehicle accidents. Suicides are most prevalent among people who live in rural areas, males, American Indian or Alaska Natives, and White people, but they are rising fastest in some people of color, younger individuals, and people who live in rural areas. On July 16, 2022, the federally mandated crisis number, 988, will be available to all landline and cell phone users, providing a single three-digit number to access a network of over 200 local and state-funded crisis centers. While the overall number of suicide deaths decreased slightly from 47,511 to 45,979 between 2019 to 2020, the suicides involving firearms increased over the same period (from 23,941 to 24,292). The recent mass shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo have catalyzed discussion around mental health and gun policy. In the same week that the federal Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was signed strengthening background checks for young adults, adding incentives for red flag laws, and reducing access to guns for individuals with a domestic violence history, the Supreme Court struck down New York’s “proper cause” requirement for concealed carry allowances. In this issue brief, we use the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Wonder database and the State Firearm Law Database to examine the association between suicide deaths by firearm and the number of state-level firearm law provisions.
Suicides account for over half of all firearm deaths (54%), and over half of all suicides involve a firearm (53%). Though mass shootings are more widely covered, data reveal that suicides are a more common cause of firearm-related deaths than homicide. In 2020, a little more than half (54%) of all firearm-related deaths were suicides, 43% were homicides, and 2% were accidental discharges or undetermined causes. This represents a slight decrease from 2018 and 2019, where suicides by firearms accounted for over 60% of all firearm deaths in that period. Looking at suicides, we find that guns were involved in 53% of suicides in 2020, representing the majority of all suicides.
Variation in state-level suicide rates is largely driven by rates of suicide by firearm. Suicides involving firearms vary from the lowest rate of 1.8 per 100,000 in New Jersey and Massachusetts to a high of 20.9 per 100,000 in Wyoming, representing an absolute difference of 19.1. In contrast, the rate of suicide by other means is more stable across states, ranging from a low of 4.6 in Mississippi to a high of 11.4 in South Dakota, representing an absolute difference of 6.8.
There is a wide range of firearm law provisions across states, with Idaho having the fewest at just one and California having the most at 111. Because there is no comprehensive national firearm registry and very few state registries, it is difficult to track gun ownership in the US, so estimates of gun ownership rely on survey data or measures closely related to gun ownership–such as the number of firearm laws. The State Firearm Law Database is a catalog of the presence or absence of 134 firearm law provisions across all 50 states; this analysis uses firearm laws present in 2019. Even though state laws vary widely in detail and number, there are some common themes across states. Many states restrict firearm access to those considered high-risk, including people with felony convictions (37 states), domestic violence misdemeanors (31 states), or those deemed by the court to be a danger (28 states). A number of states regulate concealed carry permits–for example, 37 require background checks for applicants and 28 require authorities to revoke concealed carry permits under certain conditions, though some concealed carry laws may be subject to change given the recent Supreme Court decision. Other major categories of gun laws include dealer regulations, ammunition regulations and child access prevention, among others. In 2019, the average number of firearm law provisions per state was 29 and ranged from one provision in Idaho to 111 in California (Appendix Table 1).
More than twice as many suicides by firearm occur in states with the fewest gun laws, relative to states with the most laws. We grouped states into three categories according to the number of firearm law provisions. States with the lowest number of gun law provisions (17 states) had an average of six provisions and were placed in the “least” category; states with a moderate number of laws (16 states) had an average of 19 provisions and were placed in the “moderate” category; and states with the most firearm laws (17 states) had an average of 61 provisions and were placed in the “most” firearm provisions category. Using CDC WONDER underlying cause of death data, we calculated the age-adjusted rate of suicide by firearm for each category of states. We find that suicide by firearm is highest in states with the fewest gun laws (10.8 per 100,000), lower in states with moderate gun laws (8.4 per 100,000), and the lowest in states with the most gun laws (4.9 per 100,000) (Figure 3). The analysis is not designed to necessarily demonstrate a causal relationship between gun laws and suicides by firearm, and it is possible that there are other factors that explain the relationship.
Firearms are the most lethal method of suicide attempts, and about half of suicide attempts take place within 10 minutes of the current suicide thought, so having access to firearms is a suicide risk factor. The availability of firearms has been linked to suicides in a number of peer-reviewed studies. In one such study, researchers examined the association between firearm availability and suicide while also accounting for the potential confounding influence of state-level suicidal behaviors (as measured by suicide attempts). Researchers found that higher rates of gun ownership were associated with increased suicide by firearm deaths, but not with other types of suicide. Taking a look at suicide deaths starting from the date of a handgun purchase and comparing them to people who did not purchase handguns, another study found that people who purchased handguns were more likely to die from suicide by firearm than those who did not–with men 8 times more likely and women 35 times more likely compared to non-owners.
Non-firearm suicides rates are relatively stable across states suggesting that other types of suicides are not more likely in areas where guns are harder to access. To examine whether non-firearm suicides are higher in states where guns are more difficult to access, we used the state-level firearm law provision groups described above and calculated the age-adjusted rate for each group (states with the least, moderate, and the most firearm law provisions). The results of this analysis provide insight into whether there are other factors that may be contributing to the relationship between gun laws and firearm suicides, such as whether people in states that lack easy access to firearms have higher suicide rates by other means. The rate of non-firearm suicides is relatively stable across all groups, ranging from a low rate of 6.5 in states with the most firearm laws to a high of 6.9 in states with the lowest number of firearm laws. The absolute difference of 0.4 is statistically significant, but small. Non-firearm suicides remain relatively stable across groups, suggesting that other types of suicides are not more likely in areas where guns are harder to get (Figure 3). Though we do not observe an increase of suicide death by other means in states with less access to guns, there may still be differences across states that could explain these findings.
If the suicide rate by firearm in all states was similar to the rate in the states with the most gun laws, approximately 6,800 lives may have been saved in 2020, a reduction of about 15% of all suicide-related deaths. Applying the crude rate of 5.3 per 100,000 to the total population in 2020, we estimate that nearly 6,800 suicide deaths may have been averted if rates of suicide by firearm were similar to states with the most gun control laws.
Recent federal legislation strengthens some gun control measures, but it may take several years to impact firearm mortality. In the recently passed federal legislation, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, there is an emphasis on strengthening some measures of gun control including background checks for young adults and reducing gun access for those who have a history of domestic violence, among other provisions. Also included in the legislation are additional funds for mental health services in schools and for child and family mental health services. Despite federal movement toward strengthening gun control, a recent Supreme Court decision struck down state legislation that placed additional restrictions on concealed carry permits. It is not known how the Supreme Court’s decision will impact the frequency of concealed carry firearms and the rate of firearm mortality. More firearm regulations are associated with fewer homicides and suicides, but the newly passed federal gun laws may take several years to reduce firearm mortality.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at the new three-digit dialing code 988 or 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889).
This work was supported in part by Well Being Trust. KFF maintains full editorial control over all of its policy analysis, polling, and journalism activities.