Suicides: The Gun Factor

July 17, 1989

Perhaps the most startling fact to emerge from the grim gallery on the preceding pages is the pervasiveness of suicides -- 216, or 47% of the week's total gun deaths. That proportion was actually below average: for at least three decades, suicides have generally accounted for more than half the nation's annual firearms fatalities. And while the overall U.S. suicide rate climbed from 11.9 to 12.8 per 100,000 people from 1980 to 1986, the percentage of suicides committed with guns has also been rising. In 1986, 64% of the men and 40% of the women who committed suicide shot themselves.

Suicide is a complex phenomenon, influenced by religious, cultural and psychological factors. Men are far more prone to it than women are, and in the U.S. whites are more likely to kill themselves than are blacks. While international comparisons are difficult because the varying stigmas attached to suicide produce under-reporting in certain countries, one point is unchallenged: the U.S. leads the world in gun use for self-inflicted deaths. In 1986, 7.5 people per 100,000 in the U.S. used firearms to kill themselves; Switzerland was second with 6, followed by France with 4.9 and Canada with 4.7.

Yet experts see no certain connection between national suicide rates and the availability of guns. While the U.S. has a disproportionate number of suicides by firearms, it falls only about midway on the World Health Organization's most recent list of overall suicide rates in 33 industrialized nations. At 13.2 per 100,000 people, America's record was far worse than that of Ireland (9.2), Italy (8.3), Spain (6.9) and Greece (3.8). But Hungary (45.5), Denmark (27.1), Finland (27) and Switzerland (22.8) make the problem in the U.S. seem inconsequential by comparison.

Although the national differences have not been adequately explained, some researchers see American suicides as being more heavily influenced than in the past by drugs and alcohol, which lead to more spur-of-the-moment self-killing. One recent trend in the U.S. has been a sharp increase in suicides among people under 24. Although some of the older victims in TIME's survey seemed to plan their deaths -- leaving wills or notes about their illnesses, for example -- many of the younger ones acted after arguments. Girls shot themselves in front of their boyfriends, husbands killed themselves after their wives left them, desperate men shot their spouses in quarrels and then turned their weapons on themselves. The happenstance of an impulse and the ready availability of a gun were the fatal combination.

Guns add a dimension of harsh finality to suicide attempts. Psychologists find that most people who attempt to kill themselves do not really wish to die. Many suicide methods, including drugs, carbon monoxide poisoning from car exhausts or simply swimming away from a shore, allow people to change their mind or to be discovered and rescued. According to some experts, for each successful suicide, there are at least 20 attempts. But one study has found that when people use a gun, the rate of death is 92%. Says Tulane University sociologist James Wright: "Everyone knows that if you put a loaded .38 in your ear and pull the trigger, you won't survive."

The mental state that prompts suicide, usually some form of depression, is often treatable. Psychologists contend that suicide must be discussed more openly and viewed without shame so that potential victims will seek treatment. Werner Spitz, a professor of forensic pathology at Wayne State University, regrets that "people are ashamed to admit a relative committed suicide, seeing it as a blemish on the good name of the family." Since suicide can be contagious, many families rightly fear that a son or daughter, a brother or sister, may be inclined to imitate the act of self-destruction. But "depression is a disease," says Detroit psychiatrist Karole Avila. "The way to rip away the veil over suicide is to destigmatize it."

Atlanta's Rhoda Berliner is an example of how the availability of guns can make a difference. She had been undergoing therapy for recurring depression. Despite a comfortable income, the 63-year-old divorcee was so afraid of poverty that she twice tried to kill herself with pills. Each time, her family discovered her soon enough to save her. But on Saturday morning, May 6, she found a swift and certain alternative. She went to a shopping center and bought a handgun. Since Berliner knew nothing about weapons, the salesclerk loaded the pistol for her. She took the gun home and shot herself. At that point, there was no time, and no way, for anyone to help.

After the tragedy, her son Stephen Nodvin, a research ecologist in Knoxville, wrote a moving three-page plea to his Congressman. He conceded that his mother might have found another way to end her life, but said her depression would probably have been cured had a gun not been so easily available. He protested the casual way in which she was able to acquire the fatal weapon: "No waiting period was enforced, no mental or criminal checks were made, and the salesperson even loaded the bullets into the gun. Mom died that day because of the totally irresponsible attitude that we Americans have developed about gun use and ownership." Every week, more American families are exposed to that irreversible lesson.

Copyright (c) TIME Magazine, 1995 TIME Inc. Magazine Company; (c) 1995 Compact Publishing, Inc.

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