Beyond homicides: The state’s hidden gun issue

New Hampshire is known for both its gun culture and its relatively low rate of homicides. But, does this tell the whole story about how guns affect life in New Hampshire?

The horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut on Dec. 14, 2012, sparked an acrimonious nationwide debate about how to best protect our children from gun violence. Most of the debate until recently has focused on how to avoid the extremely rare but dramatic school shootings.

JoAnne Miles, the injury surveillance program coordinator for the New Hampshire Division of Public Health Services, produced a report entitled “Injuries in the State of New Hampshire 2001-2009”. She gave me the raw numbers of firearm related fatalities in New Hampshire from 2001 to 2009 and firearm deaths in New Hampshire by intent from 2001 to 2009. To give perspective to the number of people killed by firearms, she also sent data on the number of motor vehicle traffic fatalities in New Hampshire from 2001 to 2009. Information for 2010, 2011, and 2012 isn’t available, she said, because the data has to be verified and checked against population data, which comes from the census.

In the period 2001 to 2009, 1,457 New Hampshire deaths were caused by motor vehicles. 742 deaths were caused by firearms. Of the 742, only 11% were caused by homicides, accidents, and other actions. 659 of those firearm deaths were suicide fatalities. There were an additional 748 suicides that did not involve guns, bringing total suicide fatalities to 1,407. From 2001 to 2009, only 50 more New Hampshire residents died in car accidents than died by suicide This was not the data that I expected to find. It is not the data that one finds in other states, including our neighbor to the south, Massachusetts.

The suicide fatality rate in New Hampshire has remained more or less consistent since 2001, but the motor vehicle fatality rate has decreased significantly over the past 4 decades. If the suicide rate does not decrease this year, 2013 may see the suicide fatality rate exceed the motor vehicle fatality rate.

There is much that New Hampshire can do to decrease the number of suicides. But first, we have to acknowledge that a suicide problem exists before we can lessen it. I suggest that over the next 20 years, we can decrease deaths by suicide substantially just as we have reduced deaths by motor vehicles substantially during the last 20 years.

The numbers

In New Hampshire the yearly homicide death rate of 1 per 100,000 people for the period 2001 to 2009 is so low as to be statistically inconclusive. In Massachusetts the yearly homicide death rate for this period is 2.5 per 100,000 people. For the same period, the U.S. yearly homicide death rate is 5.3 per 100,000 people. The U.S. yearly homicide death rate by firearms is 3.63 per 100,000 population.

Perhaps New Hampshire’s homicide rate is low because there are so many guns in New Hampshire that they act as a deterrent. Perhaps it is because New Hampshire residents are older and better educated than most residents of other states. Or, perhaps it is because there are few gangs in New Hampshire shooting at each other and killing innocent people in the crossfire.

The suicide rate in New Hampshire during the period 2001 to 2009 was 13 per 100,000 while the suicide rate in the United States was 10 per 100,000, according to the New Hampshire Division of Public Health Services. . It seems that the gun debate in New Hampshire would be best served by focusing on bringing down the suicide rate. It is known that people who attempt suicide are ambivalent. Those who don t use guns and survive often never attempt suicide again. Those who use guns unfortunately don’t give themselves the chance to change their mind.

A spokesman for the NRA says that guns in and of themselves are not a public health issue. I agree. Motor vehicles are also not a public health issue. But both guns and motor vehicles can be instruments of death. That is why injuries and deaths caused by the improper use of guns and motor vehicles are indeed very serious public health issues.

Combating suicide

I respect those who use guns safely as well as those who drive safely. I believe that because the majority of gun owners in New Hampshire use guns responsibly and the majority of drivers in New Hampshire drive responsibly, the fatality rate in New Hampshire from both homicides and motor vehicle accidents is lower here than in most other states. We should be proud that we have a low fatality rate in homicides and motor vehicle accidents, but we should work at lowering our fatality rate by suicide from above the U.S. average to below the U.S. average.

The New Hampshire State Suicide Prevention Council’s 2011 Annual Suicide Report finds that compared to other states, we have the 3rd highest rate of alcohol usage and the 9th highest rate of illegal drug usage. And we have the 6th highest rate of reported major depressive episodes. The report also states that “Over 80 percent of self-injuries using a firearm result in death.” Females make more suicide attempts than males, but males are more likely to use a firearm; thus the male suicide fatality rate is much higher than the female suicide fatality rate. The report also states: “Among youth and young adults, suicide is often a highly impulsive act and poor impulse control is one of the risk factors for suicide. Therefore, intervention efforts that reduce access to firearms and other highly lethal means may be effective to reduce suicide among those at risk for suicide and those who are impulsive.”

In New Hampshire firearms are the most common means of suicide fatalities for two reasons: The first is that there is an unawareness of the warning signs of suicide in friends or relatives. The second is that many are unwilling to place barriers in the way of any person having quick access to firearms.

According to the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, there are 495 federally licensed gun dealers in New Hampshire. Because many accept the premise that guns should be widely accessible to all New Hampshire residents, there is one gun dealer here for every 2,668 residents.

If the number of suicide fatalities in New Hampshire does not exceed the number of fatalities by motor vehicle in 2013, part of the credit will go to the Firearms Safety Coalition. The coalition consists of 35 of the most prominent gun shops in New Hampshire joined with professionals from The National Alliance on Mental Illness NH. The coalition distributes literature to gun shop employees encouraging them to notice potential suicides and get them help instead of selling them a gun.

My hope is more and more New Hampshire residents become aware of the warning signs of suicide and that more than 35 of the 495 Federal Firearms Licensees in New Hampshire join the Firearms Safety Coalition to help the rate of New Hampshire suicides decline just as individuals, local, state, and federal officials, and members of the motor vehicle industry worked together to make the rate of motor vehicle fatalities decline.

Mark Wisan lives in Peterborough.

Legacy Comments5

I will try again to comment on this issue and hope that the problem was a technical one. If the editorial staff has an issue with my comments I would appreciate a response as to why they believe that my comments are inappropriate. The title of this opinion piece is misleading. We don't have a gun problem, we have a suicide problem. All you're doing with this title and this piece is hiding the real problem, suicides, by over inflating the importance of one possible tool being used in the suicides, guns. Yes, being aware of someone's emotional state and removing ALL possible tools that could be used to commit suicide is very important as Mark so eloquently stated above, but the people who should be doing that are the families and friends who know the person and mental health professionals who are trained in what to look for, not gun store employees! One of the many statistics that wasn't included in this piece is the number of these suicides by gun who go buy the gun immediately before committing suicide vs how many use a gun that they either already owned or owned by a friend or family member. I would be very interested in those numbers. Shouldn't we be focusing on awareness and treatment of the symptoms of depression and suicidal tendencies instead of obscuring the issue in yet another pro-gun/anti-gun argument?

I am still looking for the number of suicides by gun who go buy the gun immediately before committing suicide. I haven’t found a public place where gun stores or police departments send this information. I feel that this is probably a relatively small percent of suicides by gun, but I would prefer to get actual numbers. We do know that most suicides use a gun that they either already owned or was owned by a friend or family member. This article was not intended as an anti-gun argument, but the fact is that guns are by far the most popular suicide tool, especially among men. Thank you for using the word “eloquent” in describing my description of the problem.

What do readers think of the WARNING SIGNS OF SUICIDE? • Talking about wanting to die • Looking for a way to kill oneself • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain • Talking about being a burden to others • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs • Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly • Sleeping too little or too much • Withdrawing or feeling isolated • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge • Displaying extreme mood swings The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide. WHAT TO DO If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide: • Do not leave the person alone • Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt • Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) • Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional

At least you put this in the right section, "Opinion", unlike a couple of other anti-gun so-called "news" articles printed here recently. Suicide is not a gun problem! Your title is offensive to gun owners and misleading. Males are more likely in general to "succeed" at suicide (really fail!) than females, with or without a gun. So the "statistics" that you quote are very misleading. Yes, we should all be concerned about suicides, but by highlighting this as a "gun" problem instead of a mental or social problem you're removing the focus from where it's needed the most.

I agree with AnnM that lowering the suicide rate should not be part of the pro-gun anti-gun debate. Both sides of the inane gun debate ignore the suicide issue. Background checks, limitations on assault weapons, limitations on the size of magazines will do nothing to lower the suicide rate. Likewise, the ideology that it is morally wrong to deny ANYONE, even a potential suicide, unlimited access to guns stands in the way of lowering the suicide rate. If guns were used in suicide equally with bridges (jumping off), sharp objects (cutting oneself), ropes (hanging), and other means, would you say that trying to lessen the number of suicides was part of the anti-bridge, or the anti-rope, or anti-sharp object debate. But, guns are used in suicide more than all the other tools combined. I am not against free speech when I suggest that the word “successful” should never be used to describe a suicide. I am not against “Freedom of the Press” when I suggest that reporters not use sensational words and headlines when reporting on suicide.

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