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Lost in the Gun Rights vs. Gun Control Debate: Youth Suicide

We can do more to prevent youth suicide through education, screening, and other measures.

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Gun access and age requirements are the latest flashpoints in debates about school safety. In this debate, let’s not forget youths 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 youths 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 analysis of Texas vital statistic data shows that between 2006 and 2015, of all suicides by youths 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 youths 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 lives. 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 youths who used a firearm in their suicides. 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 youths ended their own lives with guns given to them as gifts or for self-protection.

Compared with the Northeast, youth firearm suicides were higher in the Midwest, South and West, probably because of greater firearm accessibility in these areas. In fact, female youths in the South were 11 times as likely to use firearms as female youths in the Northeast.

What may seem surprising is that, according to coroner and medical examiner reports, youths without histories of mental health problems were more likely than youths with histories of mental health problems to use a firearm.

In addition, male youths who had no prior suicide attempt or had not disclosed their suicidal intent were also more likely to use a firearm. Among female youths, those reported to have relationship problems were more likely to use a firearm. These findings suggest the impulsive nature of firearm suicides among youths 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 youths.

We may disagree about many aspects of gun laws, but we can all agree that we need to stop youths 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.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Waco Tribune Herald and the San Antonio Express News.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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