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We’re Not Talking to Gun Owners About Suicide the Right Way

A new study finds that gun-owning men who have suicidal behaviors are less likely to report thinking of suicide than those without a gun. It’s another example of how poorly we understand the intersection of mental health and firearms

Again and again, research has shown that owning a firearm, or having access to one, correlates strongly with higher suicide risk. It’s not that gun owners are more suicidal, per se — it’s that they’re more likely to die in a suicide attempt, precisely because they’re using a gun. 

The toll is shocking: More than 60 percent of gun deaths in America are suicides, vastly outpacing homicides, and it’s disproportionately men who are dying. 

What’s been less clear, however, is whether gun owners differ from non-owners in the way they think about, and ultimately plan, suicide. A new study published this week sheds light on that question, finding that gun owners with a recent suicide attempt are less likely than non-gun owners to report experiencing suicidal thoughts.

On its face, it seems like a perplexing contradiction: Shouldn’t anyone who attempts suicide have more advance thoughts about the act? But as researchers from Ohio State University point out, the link between suicidal thoughts versus behavior has always been poorly understood — and they conclude that gun owners, in particular, experience thoughts about fatal self-harm in different ways than the general population. 

This puts them at risk to go unnoticed and unhelped in standard mental health screenings, says study co-author Craig Bryan, a clinical psychologist and director of the Division of Recovery and Resilience at Ohio State University in Columbus. “Just a simple shift in questioning, adding one more different perspective or a different angle to ask about suicidal thoughts, could potentially help us to identify people who are in a vulnerable state,” Bryan said in a press release

It’s a critical bit of context in our understanding of how to deal with America’s mounting suicide crisis amid the most heavily armed citizenry in the world. Through a survey of more than 9,000 adults, researchers found that gun owners are nearly four times more likely to have started a suicide attempt than those without guns, yet only half as likely to report suicidal ideation or seek help. This gap was most noticeable in gun owners with “higher probabilities” of suicidal behavior, suggesting they’re at unique risk of dying without ever having a chance at getting help or an intervention.

The study is an indictment of the gaping holes in our mental health-care system. It’s also impossible to ignore the fact that, among the gun owners surveyed in the study, nearly two-thirds were men, 75 percent were white and one in four were military veterans. Gun suicide is a legitimate crisis for white men, and the root causes have a lot to do with a collective failure to seek help. 

This is both a structural and individual problem. We know that men struggle to seek therapy, even when they have the financial resources and time to do so; we also know that schools, universities, workplaces and insurance companies have failed to manage a swelling number of crises and to provide accessible care. The number of guns in the country since 2000 has grown alongside the number of suicide deaths, which has increased 30 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite guns being the primary method in these deaths, there is no legal requirement to inform and educate gun buyers about mental health risks, let alone do any type of pre-screening. 

And as mental health advocate Sonja Wadsen discovered while trying to purchase a gun as a social experiment, someone with a documented history of hospitalizations and serious mental health disorders can easily bypass federal restrictions if they just lie about it at the register. On paper, this is supposed to be a “best-case” scenario to potentially stop self-harm — and yet, thanks to the disjointed nature of the federal mental health reporting network, there’s little recourse to be found. 

Meanwhile, owning a gun can be a powerful salve for all kinds of insecurities, potentially serving as a bandage on a much deeper emotional wound. The impact of mainstream gun culture on masculinity cannot be overstated, considering the marketing machine that entices men with promises of strength and courage. In turn, there are a lot of angry, impulsive men who own guns in America. Given these factors, it’s easy to imagine how a temporary mental health crisis, coupled with the subconscious aggression that the presence of a gun can generate, is a dangerous cocktail for suicide risk.

It’s going to take more than a robust federal background check or “red-flag” laws, which allow a court to take firearms from someone if a family member argues they’re a threat to themselves or others, to fix this. Both tools absolutely save lives, but in a sea of 400 million guns, men will find ways to have a firearm in their hands anyway. In the face of mounting income inequality, existential loneliness, a chaotic “Culture War” and extreme beliefs, it’s clear that many more men will turn to their firearm as a solution to their woes, even if they never identified as “suicidal” in the past. 

All of which only underscores what we’ve already known for a long time: America needs to reckon with its unraveling mental health, and it’ll require creativity and commitment to find people who are hurting, but don’t know how to say it.