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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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Submitted by murphy at: January 15, 2014
My grandson, not a teenager but a young adult, committed suicide by gun about 2 years ago. He was having legal problems but nothing that couldn't have been worked with. It is coincidental that a gun was in that household from what I have been told. Since he was hiding from the police, and no doubt in a constant state of fear, it is understandable how he would have lost a sense of what his choices were. Do agree that not having the gun available would have made a difference to this senseless tragedy. Also just read the comment below about gun control not being an answer. What is an answer is this -- if guns were used for their original purpose -- hunting of game -- that would be easily understood. Unfortunately, we are over 200 years beyond that original plan. There is no way anyone can explain to me the use of an uzzi (sic) or assault rifles, by ordinary citizens, to walk around with. We are not living in a police state but it may come close to that in deciding who can carry and who is inappropriately -- for the purpose of use -- if common sense is not put into place. The question to me is clear -- to use prevention, not intervention to protect young children and their families from those who use arms for venting their anger and rage. Yes, there are many mentally ill persons, by designation, walking around who are ill equipped to make a decision of how to use a gun. Also though, there are those who are dealing with considerable stress who have possible access to guns as a way of settling their situations. What is necessary is to be aware of your surroundings and if you are able to notice anything unique then it is important to be caring enough to call on the proper authorities to work with situations before they become critically out of hand. Thanks for considering my perspective.

Submitted by acritical at: July 1, 2013
For all of those that agree with this article completely, take time and find out how many suicides happen in countries that have banned guns. Then look at what is the rape and murder rate in comparison to the United States. Finally, take a look at the number of violent crimes. I have done that, many of you may be surprised to see that the U.S. is not the leader in any of those areas. Gun control is not the answer, gun education and listening to our children is the answer.

Submitted by Anonymous at: July 1, 2013
I first have say how sad I am that children are feeling so helpless and hopeless at such a young age,that they do not wish to live any longer. My family is still in pain because one our teens ended his life at 18 years old by way of a gun.

Submitted by Danielle at: June 30, 2013
This column was really powerful and I am so glad I've read it. While opponents of gun control will often argue that guns protect people and make homes safer, I think anyone who has an understanding of human development can see that a child or a teenager having access to a lethal weapon is undeniably dangerous. I often bring this point up when debating my friends and colleagues who think they need to own a gun to protect their families from intruders. I am glad to have this article as a point of reference in future debates.

Submitted by Anonymous at: June 30, 2013
This article re guns and teens makes me feel quite ill.. To me there is only ONE answer....BAN THE GUNS!!!!!!!

Submitted by Karenedmond1 at: June 29, 2013
I agree! "94 percent of gun-related suicides would not occur if no guns were present." These kids would have had a chance to change their minds and go on with life. Ignorance and temptation is a dangerous formula for kids. (Especially when the variables in equation are I=(guns) and T=suicide. Unfortunately many young people are tempted with thoughts of suicide and many pass up or survive attempt. It is a fact that when a gun is available, the risk factors of that youths temptations to execute suicide goal heightens. The only right thing for a civilized society to do would be to remove guns from the reach of naïve youth whose crisis on most cases happen to be temporary.

Submitted by Leslie at: June 29, 2013
I helped inform the Congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Society in Stamford about Asking Saves Kids (ASK) Day June 21. Mayor Pavia of Stamford and Governor Dannell Malloy of CT both issues Proclamations about ASK Day and good parenting.

Submitted by Mikalucho at: June 29, 2013
I think it is ok to own pistols and rifles. What I have read in this column tells me that these people that left their weapons just laying around are very irresponsible "gun owners". Children should be taught about what guns can do and that they are not toys. All weapons should be locked up in a safe place at all times when they are not being carried by the owner. I for one would rather have a gun and not need it than not have one and need it to protect my self or family. Banning guns just because a few people are not responsible with their weapons is wrong. This is judging the the whole gun owner community on the actions of a few irresponsible people. this is like judging all dogs as worthless just because the neighbors dog comes over and craps in your yard. Me, I'm for guns all the way. This country did not become a free country on the crap dished out by politicians but by people using guns to protect our way of life. Now we have this religious bunch here that stops and prays in the middle of the street stopping traffic and nothing is being done about it by our gutless leaders. these people have temples, let them pray there, not in the street. It's our way of life that they are infringing on.

Submitted by Deb B. at: June 28, 2013
This is such a timely piece. We must do better!! Heart felt thanks, Dr. Edelman, for your commitment and dedication to children, youth & families.

Submitted by progwoman at: June 28, 2013
Thank you for this substantive discussion of a very difficult topic.

Submitted by Carolyn at: June 28, 2013
How sad it is we put guns ahead of so many things, even our children. This country says it loves its children; yet, we do not give enough for education, gun control, pregnant women, preventive measures, etc. Thanks for the work you do.

Submitted by China at: June 28, 2013
I hope that each of Mrs. Edelman's CHILD WATCH COLUMNs are delivered straight to our President's email box. I hope also to hear ideas from her as to how community members can make a difference in the lives of children in their communities, be it volunteering, starting clubs, classes for the children. etc.

Submitted by psych at: June 28, 2013
I have worked with and been made aware of three children who killed themselves with guns found at home. One I worked with bought a bullet from another student and shot himself. I have urged families to remove guns from home when they have a child who is depressed or impulsive or angry. It is a simple thing that families can do in a country that allows guns to be readily available in our homes. We must fight for better gun control but we must also fight for a better understanding that availability of guns in the home can kill our most precious children.

Submitted by userpeg at: June 28, 2013
What they had in common was the belief that death would end their suffering. Suicide is mostly an attention seeker and that is why most will call for help after taking a bottle of pills, assured that this desperate act will get them the attention they need. Mental illness remains misunderstood. It is true that there is always a way if they really want to die. Why can we not look at helping them to realize that death is not the answer. Their deaths were not based on a "simple period of depression". Someone saw they were having problems. Someone knew they might hurt themselves. Many denied this to be true and now they are dead. Guns, pills, whatever were the just the instruments for three kids who were desperately crying out for help and no one listened.

Submitted by DeeJay at: June 28, 2013
I hold the NRA and it's enablers in Congress responsible for all gun deaths. I wish it were mandatory that all elected officials be forced to learn the history of the Second Amendment before being allowed to case a vote. We must educate people and stop the violence in our country.

Submitted by Linda Alhart at: June 28, 2013
Grandmothers Against Gun Violence ( CapeCodGAG.org) salutes all that you are doing to prevent gun violence and ensure our children and grandchildren a safe environment to grow up in.

Submitted by amv at: June 28, 2013
We need more discussion at this level. For those of us who favor gun control or even their abolition, it is easy to speak out against guns. But this is a much tougher Struggle as we know many of our compatriots feel Gun ownership is an inalienable right. But why can't we begin to advocate for gun liability insurance. We have to have car insurance, homeowners Insurance, for those of in health we have to have malpractice insurance. The risk of death and/or injury can be measured and priced out as all other insurances. Will this stop suicide, death by gun or even mass shootings? Probably not. But insurance along with articles such as the one in the above may reduce hazardous use of firearms.

Submitted by acritical at: June 28, 2013
I would challenge you to cite how many suicides were committed without using a gun and cite at least 3 references supporting that. "An estimated 94 percent of gun-related suicides would not occur if no guns were present." - Is that saying that 6% of gun-related suicides would occur without a gun? Unreasonable. When will we learn that we cannot blame the gun for the suicide but the want to commit suicide for the suicide. Any anti-gun personality can skew statistics to make guns sound evil, but it is known that no gun ever killed anyone by itself, and if a person wants to commit suicide, they will find a way. The crime here is that the individuals that owned the firearms did not properly secure their firearms. However, no one can ever say that the person would not have committed suicide if the gun was not available. The only one that could ever answer that question, unfortunately, cannot be questioned.

Submitted by Ellie at: June 28, 2013
Have any studies been undertaken to determine WHY so many children are committing suicide. In addition to eliminating guns, we must work on the cause, since guns may be the most convenient but are not the only means for suicide. What is missing in our children's lives?