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What do you want to know about guns or gun violence? Ask The Trace is a project driven by the curiosity of readers like you. You can read all of the articles in the series here and submit your own questions here.

At Ask The Trace, we have tended to avoid overtly political questions. But for this edition, we’re going to address one of those questions, as it touches a fault line in our country’s conversation about guns.

Here’s the question, submitted by a reader named Tim: Why is the United States the only country to view gun suicide as gun violence? Could it only be to inflate the gun violence figures?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 39,707 gun deaths in the United States in 2019, with most recent year data available. Sixty percent – or about two in three – were suicides.

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America has the highest gun suicide rate of any country in the world. Its gun homicide rate, meanwhile, is about 30th.

As Tim’s question suggests, some people, often gun rights advocates, question whether including suicides under the umbrella of “gun violence” is spurious. Suicide is a solitary act, this argument argues, and not the result of conflict between people. Some gun rights advocates also balk when lawmakers use the annual tally of gun deaths to lobby for policies, such as a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, which do not. not necessarily aim to reduce suicide. (Research indicates that red flag laws and waiting periods are more effective in reducing gun suicide.)

Meanwhile, proponents of gun reform argue that gunshot wounds do the same damage regardless of intent, and for this reason, suicide cannot be separated from the death toll in the country. .

When it comes to the data, public health officials and academics are pretty specific in how they describe the shootings. The CDC defines “gun violence” as self-inflicted gunshots; involuntary; the result of interpersonal violence; and officer involved. WISQARS, the CDC’s Fatal Injury Database, allows people to filter cause of death data by “cause or mechanism of injury” and includes optional “guns”. The resulting report is simply titled “Gun Deaths and Rates”.

But is it true, as the reader suggests, that the United States is the only country that views gun suicide as gun violence?

I interviewed a few of our economic peers as well as researchers and academics, and found that this was not the case. Canada, for example, considers gun suicide to be gun violence and includes gun suicides in its gun injury statistics, a spokesperson for the public safety agency said. from the country.

“Certainly, gun suicide is generally considered a problem of ‘gun violence’ in Australia, UK, Canada, New Zealand and most European countries,” said Philip Alpers, professor. Public Health Officer at the University of Sydney in Australia and Director of GunPolicy.Org, a website that has been tracking gun possession and civilian deaths around the world for nearly two decades.

Alpers and his Australian academic colleagues refer to gun suicides as gun violence and “gun violence”.

The reader is correct that suicides in several countries are generally not included in the “gun violence” reports provided in public health reports. But researchers told me that’s because the overall gun death toll is much lower than in the United States.

For example, Australia and England report gun offenses and gun suicides in separate reports. But the two countries recorded a total of 307 gun deaths in 2020, less than half of Chicago.

Alpers said any separation between homicides and suicides “is artificial. This division of data is often exploited by those who view gun suicide as less “violent” or preventable. Or inevitable.

With suicide, some people argue that there is no danger from another person, and most gun owners in America are armed for the purpose of self-defense. Mark Bryant, the founder of Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks shootings in near real time, includes suicides in his gun violence toll, but recognizes this difference. “The common thread is guns,” he said, “Although you can say that it is not necessarily a conflict between two people – and it is correct – it firearms are still a thing of the past. ” He and his team also track down unintentional shootings, which are not the result of a conflict between two people but still considered gun violence.

Bryant also points out that self-harm isn’t always a lonely act. “With suicides, we like to say that no one else got hurt, but a lot of suicides are murder-suicides,” he said. There were 570 murder-suicides in the United States in 2020, resulting in 703 murders and 570 suicides.

Bryant only started including suicides in his gun violence record two years ago, mainly because he can’t follow them in real time because they often don’t make the news. (It now relies on CDC estimates, updating final numbers when released the following year.) News media are reluctant to report on suicides for fear of triggering a contagion effect; some media that discuss it do not include specific methods for fear of possibly contributing to a reader’s suicidal thoughts. Bryant said he was asked to highlight statistics on gun suicide by suicide prevention advocates, who wanted to draw attention to the fact that guns make up half of all suicides.

Cathy Barber, the founding director of Means Matter, a gun suicide prevention campaign at Harvard School of Public Health, supported this claim. “People in the suicide prevention field started to say, ‘Hey people, let’s not neglect suicides. They account for the majority of gun deaths, after all. (The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the leading advocacy group in the field, declined to comment for this story.)

But even Barber, one of the nation’s leading suicide experts, thinks the term “gun violence” could be misleading. “I think most members of the public assume it’s homicides and assaults and not also suicides or accidental gun deaths,” she said. “Personally, I would use ‘gun deaths and injuries’ or, when I say criminal acts,’ homicides, assaults and other crimes committed with a gun. “

“Gun violence,” says Bryant, is always accurate when describing the damage caused by bullets to bodies, families and communities. “If you don’t think shooting yourself is gun violence, you need to carefully consider the results,” he said. “And I’m not just talking about the splash on the walls. I am talking about the wives, mothers and children who suffer the consequences. And there is nothing violent about it.