Reporting On Surging U.S. Suicide Rate, Press Downplays Gun Deaths

The suicide rate among middle-aged Americans, and especially among the middle-aged men, soared from 2000 to 2010, according recent findings from the Center For Diseases Control and Prevention. There were 38,350 suicides in 2010, making it the tenth leading cause of death in America, surpassing the annual number of car fatalities. Among men ages 50 to 59 years old, there was a nearly 50 percent spike in suicides over that ten-year span. More than half of all male suicides were carried out with a firearm.

The startling findings have produced a steady stream of news coverage in recent days. But it's been coverage that has largely overlooked a central tenet of the escalating suicide crisis: Guns. And specifically, easy access to guns in America.

The oversight continues a troubling media trend of news reports routinely failing to put U.S. gun violence in context and failing to give news consumers a proper understanding of the size and scope of the deadly epidemic. Self-inflicted gun deaths remain the cornerstone of suicides in America, accounting for 56 percent of male suicides. And the gun rate is increasing. You simply cannot discuss suicide in America without addressing the pivotal role firearms play. Unfortunately, in recent days lots of news organizations have tried to do just that. 

The truth is, gun suicides are rarely front-and-center in the firearms debate in this country, which instead is often focused on crime statistics and, sometimes even less rarely, the total number of people killed by guns annually. And according to researchers, there exists a clear connection between states that have high gun ownership rates and states that suffer high suicide rates.

Moreover, guns are especially lethal. Suicide attempts with a gun prove to be fatal 85 percent of the time, as compared to suicide attempts via pill overdoses, which prove fatal just two percent of the time, according to a study from the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.

In covering the CDC's latest suicide findings though, news accounts have paid little attention to guns. 

NBC News made just a single reference to firearms in its report about escalating suicides, despite the fact guns are used in early 20,000 suicides every year. The Wall Street Journal's news report never referenced “guns” or “firearms” even once. The same was true of CBS' Evening News on May 2. It aired a suicide report based on the CDC's findings and never mentioned guns.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press dispatch included just one sentence acknowledging that guns are used for more than half of the suicides in the U.S. The AP included one additional sentence noting the CDC does not address the relationship between suicide rates and gun ownership.

Lobbied by the NRA, Congress in 1996 effectively banned the CDC from conducting research on gun violence. That 17-year ban came to an end when President Obama this year issued an executive order in the wake of the Sandy Hook School massacre, granting the CDC permission to “conduct research on the causes and prevention of gun violence.” (NRA allies in the press still condemn the CDC as being anti-gun ownership.)

While the CDC hasn't been studying and collecting data on gun violence, other researches have consistently confirmed a link between firearm ownership and suicide, which is why guns ought to be a key media focus for today's surging suicide rate. 

From the American Journal of Epidemiology:

Persons with guns in the home were also more likely to have died from suicide committed with a firearm than from one committed by using a different method.

Harvard School of Public Health:

The researchers found that states with higher rates of household firearm ownership had significantly higher rates of suicide by children, women and men.

The Journal of the American Medical Association:

The availability of guns in the home, independent of firearms type or method of storage, appears to increase the risk for suicide among adolescents. 

University of California, Riverside:

With few exceptions, states with the highest rates of gun ownership -- for example, Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Alabama, and West Virginia -- also tended to have the highest suicide rates.

After researching the link between guns and suicide, Augustine Kposowa, a sociology professor at the University of California, Riverside, noted that new government policies aimed at regulating gun ownership would “reduce individual suicides.” But because the NRA and most Republicans oppose them, laws cannot be passed. And the suicide rate continues to climb.

That's all the more reason for the press to connect the obvious dots between suicide and the larger gun violence debate in America.