NEW YORK — Fewer Americans are being shot and killed in homicides, but more are using guns to commit suicide, new research shows.
Gunfire continues to kill a widely disproportionate number of young African-American men. The research, published Dec. 12 online in the Annual Review of Public Health, found that in 2012, 89 of every 100,000 black men ages 20 to 24 died from firearm homicide, compared to 4 of every 100,000 white men of the same age.
That same year — 2012 — 64 percent of firearm deaths were suicides, up from 57 percent in 2006, according to the report.
The author of the paper, Dr. Garen Wintemute, described the rising rate of suicide-by-gun as “primarily an old white guy problem.”
“For firearm violence, the group with the highest rates of death are young black men,” he told Reuters Health. “But the group in which the largest number of deaths occurs is middle-aged to older white men. And in that group, 90 percent of the deaths are suicides.”
An emergency room doctor, Wintemute directs the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis. He studied U.S. gun violence statistics from 2003 until 2012 and counted 313,045 deaths.
Although mass killings regularly capture headlines, the research showed that the five shootings with the highest number of fatalities killed a total of 96 people. Meanwhile, guns killed on average 82 people every day for the past decade — 50 of self-inflicted wounds and 32 at the hands of others.
Rates of suicides from gunshots have exceeded homicides from gunshots over the past 30 years. Since 2006, however, the gap has widened, with the number of homicides decreasing and suicides rising, the study found.
“We are having a national conversation about whether black lives matter, and one of the reasons we have not done a better job of preventing firearm violence is that we think — wrongly — that it primarily affects young black men,” Wintemute said.
“The data show that the societal burden of firearm violence falls predominately on older white men and involves primarily suicide, not homicide.”
He wonders whether legislators would be more willing to pass gun control laws if they see themselves in the statistics.
But Catherine Barber, who directs the Means Matter campaign, a suicide-prevention project at the Harvard School of Public Health in Cambridge, Massachusetts, does not believe any gun-control law currently under consideration would lower suicide rates.
“If you want to have an impact on suicide, you need to be able to talk with gun owners in a way that they can hear,” said Barber, who was not involved in Wintemute’s research.
When families realize that their loved ones might be vulnerable to suicide, they should move guns out of their homes, change the combinations on gun cabinet locks or hide the keys, she told Reuters Health.
“My kid is going through a crisis, or my spouse is relapsing with their opioid problem. Now’s the time to store my gun elsewhere. I think that’s a more productive approach because when you just go down the road of legislation, everyone gets angry and starts taking sides,” Barber said.
The numbers that were most striking to Barber were the homicide rates among young African-American men; she calls these rates “outrageous” and “heart-wrenching.” The 2012 firearm homicide rates were more than 22 percent higher for young black men than for young white men.
“What’s so striking to me is the differential burden for young black men. You don’t see these sort of differentials in health data very often,” she said.
“The scale is so huge for young black men — 90 per 100,000 for firearm homicides,” she said. “It’s like living in a war zone.”