Gun access and age requirements are the latest flashpoints in debates over school safety. In this debate, let’s not forget youth who used firearms not to harm others, but rather themselves. Teens and young adults use firearms much more often in suicides than in mass violence.
Any debate about gun control must consider youth suicide.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among youth aged 10–14, and the second leading cause among those aged 15–24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among those aged 10-24, firearms were the most frequently used suicide method among males and the second most frequently used method among females. Our own analysis of Texas vital statistic data shows that between 2006 and 2015, of all suicides by youth under age 20, 44 percent were by firearms.
This information is disturbing. So are our findings based on data from the 2005-2014 National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS). We found that of 7,489 youth under age 21 who died by suicide, nearly 42 percent (47 percent of males and 22 percent of females) used firearms (handguns, rifles, and shotguns). That is, more than 3,100 youths used firearms to end their own life. Since only 18 states had participated in the NVDRS by 2014, the actual numbers of youths who died by firearm suicides in the U.S. during the 10-year period was far more than 3,100.
Gun ownership information was available for one-third of youth who used a firearm in their suicide. Of them, nearly two-thirds used firearms belonging to parents or other family members. About a quarter used their own gun. Some were given these guns by family members as a present or for target practice or protection. Others bought the gun themselves, sometimes shortly before their suicide at a store or from an unknown individual.
Part of the tragedy is that a significant proportion of parents or other family members left the gun used in plain sight. In other cases, parents thought their gun was securely stored. Parents may also be naïve about their children’s knowledge of how to use a gun. It is ironic and tragic that youth ended their own lives with guns given to them as gifts or for self-protection.
Compared to the Northeast, youth firearm suicides were higher in the Midwest, South, and West, likely due to greater firearm accessibility in these areas. In fact, female youth in the South were 11 times more likely to use firearms than female youth in the Northeast.
What may seem surprising is that, according to coroner and medical examiner reports, youth without mental health problems were more likely than youth with mental health problems to use a firearm. In addition, male youth who had no prior suicide attempt or had not disclosed their suicide intent were also more likely to use a firearm. Among female youth, those reported to have relationship problems were more likely to use a firearm. These findings suggest the impulsive nature of firearm suicides among youth to address what may be a passing crisis.
We can do more to prevent youth suicide through education, screening, support services, and other measures. We can also make special efforts to protect children from firearm violence, including firearm suicides, by taking steps like those outlined below.
Parents need better education about firearm safety practices and the self-harm risks firearms pose to children. Adults need to know how to secure firearms and ammunition and how easily children can get access to them, even when they seem to be stored safely. Firearms are not appropriate presents for children. Instead, they pose risks of intentional or unintentional harm.
Protecting children from firearms should also be a community effort. Collaborative suicide education and prevention approaches among health professionals, firearm retailers, firearm instructors, and gun rights stakeholders seem promising. And states must ensure that their gun laws protect youth.
We may disagree about many aspects of gun laws, but we can all agree that we need to stop youth from harming themselves or others with guns.
Diana M. DiNitto is a Distinguished Teaching Professor and the Cullen Trust Centennial Professor in Alcohol Studies and Education in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin. Namkee G. Choi is the Louis and Ann Wolens Centennial Chair in Gerontology in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin.