During the 12-year span between the mass shootings at Columbine and Aurora, Coloradans used guns to kill themselves about four times more frequently than they used them to kill each other, an I-News analysis of death certificates found.
The analysis, which covered the years 2000 through 2011, also found that white residents disproportionately committed suicides with guns while minorities were disproportionately victims of homicide shootings.
In the wake of the July 20, 2012 attack at the Century Aurora 16, which left 12 people dead and more than 50 injured, state legislators introduced a flurry of measures, including proposals to prohibit the sale of high-capacity magazines, impose universal background checks and ban people with concealed weapons permits from carrying guns on college campuses. The bills have sparked sometimes-emotional debate and prompted large protests as gun-rights activists and supporters of the proposals beseeched lawmakers and Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Earlier this week, a plane circling central Denver towed a banner that read: “Hick: Don’t Take Our Guns.”
But people on both sides of the debate said that the reality of Colorado’s firearms deaths – that more than three-quarters of them are suicides – means that the proposals may do little to put much of a dent in the overall loss of life involving guns.
“I think that really goes much more to the issue of responsible ownership – that if you know you’ve got someone in your home who is struggling with depression, or something like that, you really ought to take active steps to either not have one, or, make sure if you do, it is locked up,” said Tom Mauser, who has worked to pass gun-control measures in the nearly 14 years since his son, Daniel, was killed at Columbine High.
“These are not suicide-reduction bills, and no responsible person would claim they are,” said David Kopel, a law professor at the University of Denver and research director at the Independence Institute who has testified against some of the gun proposals. “They are, at their best, and their ideals, crime-reduction bills.”
I-News analyzed data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on deaths from firearms between 2000 and 2011, the latest year available. The information comes from death certificates. It found:
Suicides accounted for 76 percent of the 6,258 deaths from guns over the 12 years, while homicides comprised 20 percent. The rest were either accidental, legal shootings by law-enforcement officers, or unexplained. Nationally, about 60 percent of gun deaths are suicides.
Gun suicides were disproportionately committed by white residents, while homicide victims were predominately minority. White residents, who make up 70 percent of the state’s population, accounted for 88 percent of the gun suicides. Fifty-eight percent of homicide victims were minorities, who comprise 30 percent of the state’s residents.
Lanny Berman, a psychologist and executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, said that the issue of guns and suicide is complex – and confusing. Overall in the United States, the percentage of suicides committed with guns has fallen in recent years even as the overall number of suicides hasn’t changed much.
People whose suicide attempts are unsuccessful don’t necessarily go on to kill themselves, Berman said.
“The people who have been rescued off the Golden Gate Bridge – a very small portion of them go on to die by suicide,” he said. Kopel, who said as a “card-carrying Roman Catholic” he was opposed to suicide, also expressed little hope that legislation could do much about the majority of gun deaths.
“The vast majority of gun deaths are suicides, and of those, they are hugely skewed to males and hugely skewed to older populations,” he said. “I think it’s highly unrealistic to think that any form of gun control is going to reduce suicide in this group.”
I-News is the public service journalism arm of Rocky Mountain PBS. Contact I-News or learn more at inewsnetwork.org