Our project about children and teenagers who were killed by guns leaves out one sizable group: those who died by suicide.
We estimate that we’re missing between 900 and 1,000 young people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which gets its mortality data from death certificates, reported in 2017 that more than a third of the children killed each year by guns in the United States are suicides. According to the CDC’s WONDER public health database, in 2017, the last year for which such data are available, 987 people aged 18 and younger died by gun suicide.
There are several reasons we chose to omit children and teens who died by suicide. Suicides often don’t make the news, unless they’re part of a newsworthy event, like a murder-suicide or a suicide during a standoff with police. But also, this project builds off information collected by Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks shootings in America. GVA gets its information from news reports and law enforcement, and though it does have data on some youth suicides, it’s not comprehensive.
Some families may not want it reported in the media that their child died by suicide. And some of the people 18 and under who died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds were perpetrators of murder-suicides. We didn’t write obituaries for anyone who killed someone in the same incident in which they died.
Many news outlets have made a conscious choice not to cover single suicides because they don’t want to trigger suicidal behavior in readers. Research has found that news reports about suicide can lead to a copycat phenomenon called suicide contagion, particularly when the victim is well-known. Reporting on these deaths can also easily run afoul of federal medical privacy laws.
Suicide among young people is very much on the rise: Between 2006 and 2016, the suicide rate for white children and teens under 18 rose 70 percent, according to CDC data, and for black children and teens it increased by 77 percent. More specifically, youth suicide by gun has also increased over the last couple of decades: The rate of children 17 and younger who took their own lives with a gun in 2014 was 1.6 per 100,000, compared to 1.0 per 100,000 seven years earlier, according to a 2017 study in Pediatrics. In one particular group, kids aged 10-14, gun suicide rates tripled between 1999 and 2014, according to a March 2018 study in Pediatrics.
Having access to a gun can often mean the difference between life and death. Because guns are so lethal, suicide attempts that involve firearms are much more likely to result in death. And the authors of the 2017 Pediatrics study found that “suicides are often impulsive in this age group, with previous findings indicating that many who attempt suicide spend 10 minutes or less deliberating.” Cassandra Crifasi, deputy director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, wrote in a recent guest column for The Trace that differences in impulse control between adults and adolescents is one reason the minimum age for buying guns should be raised: “While an 18-year-old’s brain is similar to that of a fully mature adult, key cognitive processes continue to develop until age 26. These include impulse control, which can affect an individual’s ability to safely and appropriately use a gun.”
Because children under 18 who die by gun suicide often use firearms belonging to family members, the Pediatrics study concluded that safe storage practices — like locking up firearms and keeping the ammunition separate — “can potentially be lifesaving.”