In the wake of the tragic shootings in Aurora and Sandy Hook the country has been involved in a passionate debate about gun rights and our Second Amendment. Throughout the discourse we have been bombarded with all kinds of facts and figures regarding firearms. The most startling revelation to me was the relationship between firearms and suicide.
While we may be worried about being shot by some sick stranger with an assault rifle we are more likely to be shot by ourselves. As a nation, roughly two-thirds of deaths caused by firearms are suicides. That’s a staggering and sobering statistic about suicide in our country. While horrific mass murders may grab headlines, self-inflicted wounds are the steady, silent killers. And in the state of Colorado, the suicide rate by firearm is even higher than the national average.
A recent story in the Denver Post looked at gun deaths in the Centennial State from 2000 to 2011. According to the story, 76 percent of the gun deaths over that period were attributed to suicide. Colorado’s above-average number is in keeping with national figures for certain demographics, which show that people in rural areas are the most likely to commit suicide. But then again they’re also the most likely to own guns.
Take a look at two of our neighbors to the north. Wyoming and Montana have two of the highest per capita suicide rates in the country. They also have some of the highest gun ownership per capita. States like Massachusetts and New Jersey, which have lower gun ownership rates, also have lower suicide rates. What does this mean? Is there a connection?
It depends on whom you ask. There are studies supporting a direct link between gun ownership and suicide, and there are studies to the contrary. It is hard to decipher. There are many factors involved — from age, to economics, to access to mental health facilities. However, it cannot be argued that guns are overwhelmingly used as the tool of choice when it comes to taking one’s own life. But are firearms a common factor or a cause of suicide?
Unfortunately, we may have an opportunity to find out. The shootings in Aurora and Sandy Hook also caused a huge upswing in gun sales. Some bought for personal protection and others bought because they feared a tightening of gun laws. Regardless of reason, there were millions and millions of guns sold last year. While an official count has not yet been released, a good indicator of gun sales is the amount of background checks run.
Last year saw nearly 20 million background checks to purchase firearms. That number is not per gun. It is per purchase, which can include multiple guns. It’s almost a 20 percent increase from 2011. It is the highest since the last time there were fears about infringing on the Second Amendment. Denials resulting from background checks nationwide are about 1.4 percent.
The number of firearms purchased by passing a background check is only part of the total number of guns purchased in America. It does not include all the sales that were conducted without background checks. That number is probably in the millions, too. Although I’m not sure of the exact number, I believe it is safe to say that tens of millions of guns were sold to the general population last year in the United States.
Colorado was not immune to the nation’s increase in gun sales. Like the rest of nation, gun sales grew dramatically in 2012. Spikes in gun sales in Colorado followed the tragedy in Aurora and the murder of Jessica Ridgeway. According to reports, the state offices responsible for background checks related to gun sales set records in 2012. That means in Colorado, a state that already has a high rate of suicide by gun, more firearms per person will be circulating in the population.
Locally, we know that the Aspen area also suffers from the sadness and scourge that is suicide. And much like the rest of the state or the country, firearms seem to be the tool of choice. Aspen also appears to follow national trends when it comes to firearm sales.
Perhaps most telling about the local feelings on firearms was a story in this paper written by Dorothy Atkins back in January that chronicled the issuing of concealed weapons permits for the county. According to the story, there was a 20 percent increase in concealed handgun permits issued in the county from 2011 to 2012, when the number jumped from 35 to 42. But it was not accompanied by a similar increase in population. Also noteworthy was the mentioning that before 2011 the average number of permits issued was 17.
I’m not singling out concealed weapons permit holders as any type of risk or danger. In fact, it’s probably just the opposite. To get such a permit one has to go through background checks and take all kinds of training and classes. I only bring up the number of permits issued as an unofficial gauge to the increase in gun ownership and popularity over the last year. Nor am I calling for any type of weapons ban. I don’t think any ban could save someone from themselves.
With so many more guns out there I am concerned about those suffering in the shadows. More than ever, this is the time to be vigilant. We have to keep an eye on our friends, family, neighbors and even ourselves. We can’t be afraid to reach out and give help or look for it. We can’t let suicides increase like gun sales.
Email Jeremy at firstname.lastname@example.org.