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Guns killed more people than car crashes in 2017

Suicides drove an increase in gun deaths from 2016 to 2017.

A customer at a gun shop holds a firearm. Scott Olson/Getty Images

The rate of gun deaths in the US increased yet again in 2017, driven mostly by a rise in the number of suicides with a firearm.

The new data, released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shows that the gun death rate hit 12.2 per 100,000 people in 2017, up from 12 in 2016 and 10.3 in 1999 (the earliest year of data available). The gun suicide rate increased to 7.3 in 2017, from 7.1 in 2016, while the gun homicide rate remained flat at 4.5.

The total gun death rate surpassed the car crash death rate of 11.9 per 100,000 people, as the rate of car crash deaths has steadily decreased while the gun death rate has increased over the years.

According to Alex Yablon and Daniel Nass at the Trace, “The last time the gun death rate reached similar heights was in 1996.”

Nearly 40,000 people were killed by guns in 2017. Nearly 24,000 of those deaths, or almost 60 percent, were suicides, and more than 14,000, or nearly 37 percent, were homicides. The rest were accidents and deaths through legal interventions (such as police shootings).

Even before the recent increases, America was an outlier for gun deaths among developed nations. A recent study in JAMA found that the US’s civilian gun death rate is nearly four times that of Switzerland, five times that of Canada, 35 times that of the United Kingdom, and 53 times that of Japan.

Although much of the attention to America’s gun problem focuses on mass shootings and murders, suicides continue to be a major — and growing — part of the problem. The US is not helpless in the face of these trends; the research consistently shows that stronger gun laws could prevent suicides.

Stronger gun laws stop suicides

As Dylan Matthews explained for Vox, there is a lot of research that shows greater access to guns dramatically increases the risk of suicide. At the same time, there’s solid evidence that reducing access to guns decreases the risk of suicide.

The key to understanding this: Suicides are often very impulsive, frequently planned within minutes or hours. So if one of the deadliest means of suicide — like a gun — is taken out of the picture for even a little while, it can prevent a death.

“Time is really key to preventing suicide in a suicidal person,” Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, previously told me. “First, the crisis won’t last, so it will seem less dire and less hopeless with time. Second, it opens the opportunity for someone to help or for the suicidal person to reach out to someone to help. That’s why limiting access to lethal means is so powerful.”

She added, “[I]f we keep the method of suicide away from a person when they consider it, in that moment they will not switch to another method. It doesn’t mean they never will. But in that moment, their thinking is very inflexible and rigid. So it’s not like they say, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to work. I’m going to try something else.’ They generally can’t adjust their thinking, and they don’t switch methods.”

One of the most compelling studies to this point comes from Israel: There, a study found that suicides among Israeli soldiers dropped by 40 percent when the military stopped letting soldiers take their guns home over the weekend. The change was most pronounced during the weekends, when one would expect the change to have the greatest effect.

Another study, published in Preventive Medicine in 2015, found that laws that require a government-issued permit to purchase a handgun — a license, essentially — were linked to fewer suicides. The Johns Hopkins researchers found that Connecticut’s handgun suicide rate was 15 percent lower than expected in the 10 years after it enacted its permit-to-purchase law, while Missouri’s handgun suicide rate was 16 percent higher than expected in the five years after it repealed its law.

But it’s not just a few studies. A 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that new legal restrictions guns tended to be followed by a drop in gun violence — including suicides. A review of the US-based evidence published this year by RAND, a policy think tank, found that at least some evidence linked stronger gun laws to fewer suicides, particularly background checks, child access prevention laws, minimum age requirements, and prohibitions associated with mental illness.

There are of course other interventions that can prevent suicide, including better access to mental health care. But studies show that restricting access to guns alone can also prevent suicides.

To reduce its rising death toll, America should seriously consider that evidence.

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