Child Watch® Column: "A Quiet American Epidemic"

Release Date: June 21, 2013

Marian Wright Edelman

Thirteen-year-old Michael Graham, an eighth grader at Henry H. Wells Middle School in Brewster, New York, was popular with his classmates and played football, basketball, and lacrosse. But this year on January 14th, Michael committed suicide using a pistol he had found in his home. Michael’s father had three unregistered handguns in the house:  a .40 caliber, a 9mm, and a .44 Magnum. 

On February 5th, the grandmother of 15-year-old Steven Keele reported her grandson missing. She went to take a bath and came out to find him gone. Authorities found Steven the next day, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the edge of a field behind his grandmother’s home in Limestone County, Alabama. His grandmother doesn’t know where Steven got the gun.

On March 11th, a New Hampshire police chief left his service gun on top of the safe in his closet when he went to run some errands. It was there that his girlfriend’s son, 15-year-old Jacob Carver, found it. Later that day, Jacob shot himself in the stomach with the gun. Jacob was a freshman at Timberlane Regional High School where he was a member of the school’s football and freshman wrestling teams. He was remembered as “a goofball and a free spirit who had a great sense of humor and always made people laugh.”

To some people each of these boys probably seemed like any other teenager in their communities—young people with ups and downs, but who should have had the rest of their lives ahead of them. No one but them might have been able to predict when those ups and downs would become too much. But when that moment came, Michael, Steven, and Jacob all sadly had something in common:  access to a gun. Now all three are among this year’s child victims of a quiet but widespread American epidemic.

In 2010, 19,392 Americans, including 749 children and teenagers, killed themselves with a gun. Boys were eight times more likely than girls to die in a gun suicide. A little over one in four (28 percent) gun deaths in children and teens were suicides and 66 percent were homicides. For adults 20 and older, it was almost the reverse. Two out of three deaths (65 percent) were suicides and 32 percent were homicides. Almost 88 percent of the victims of gun suicides of all ages were White, but for children and teens, American Indian or Alaska Native children and teens had the highest rate of gun suicide, nearly twice as high as White children and teens. Gun suicides have contributed to a terrible overall trend: suicide has now overtaken car accidents as the leading cause of injury-related deaths for the total population in the United States.

As with all gun deaths, there are multiple victims when a suicide occurs. Family members, friends, teachers, and coaches often struggle with guilt about signs they missed or extra steps they could have taken. 

Some people argue these tragic deaths would all have taken place no matter what and the same victims who killed themselves with guns would have simply used other means if they had not had access to guns. But studies show this is not true.  An estimated 94 percent of gun-related suicides would not occur if no guns were present. In fact, having a gun in the home makes the likelihood of suicide three to five times higher. One simple reason is that most suicide attempts are not successful, and nine out of ten people who survive a suicide attempt eventually go on to die from something else. Using a gun makes a terrible difference: experts estimate suicide attempts using guns are as much as 90 percent likely to succeed. This is especially tragic for teenagers, who may lack the experience and perspective to know how to cope with highs and lows triggered by brain chemistry they can’t always control. The simple presence of a gun can make what otherwise might have been a temporary period of depression or momentary despair fatal.  

When it comes to guns and suicide, especially in young people, there are things we can do. Access to guns is itself considered a risk factor for teenage suicide. There are many common sense ways to limit child access to guns. More than half of youths who commit suicide with a gun obtain the gun from their own homes, usually a parent’s gun. Parents who own guns should store them unloaded and locked, and make sure their children don’t know how to access the gun. Parents whose children are going through tough times can temporarily remove guns from their homes to make sure their children can’t access them.

I hope all of us will oppose laws—like the one passed in Florida in 2011 but later invalidated in a legal challenge—that prevent medical professionals from asking about guns in the home and providing counseling about how to prevent gun injuries and deaths.

We can do better.  Visit the Children’s Defense Fund web site to learn what else we can do. What we can’t do is pretend the guns themselves don’t matter. As Harvard School of Public Health scholars Dr. Matthew Miller and Dr. David Hemenway put it, “Too many seem to believe that anyone who is serious enough about suicide to use a gun would find an equally effective means if a gun were not available. This belief is invalid . . . Effective suicide prevention should focus not only on a patient’s psychological condition but also on the availability of lethal means — which can make the difference between life and death.”


Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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