The vast majority of gun deaths last year, both in Wisconsin and nationally, were not the result of well-publicized mass killings or other criminal acts. Most were perpetrated by aging white men in lonely isolation who turned the guns on themselves.
According to recently released data from the Centers for Disease Control Wonder database, the nation as a whole saw a record 39,773 gun deaths last year, the most ever in the 20 years of data contained on the database. Of those, 23,854, or 60 percent, were suicides.
In Wisconsin, 624 people died by gunfire last year — down from a record 664 in 2016 — with 70 percent of those turning the guns on themselves.
The demographics of suicide and homicide, both statewide and nationally, differ vastly. In 2017, 84 percent of those who committed suicide by gun in Wisconsin were white men. Meanwhile, 73 percent of homicide victims, though a small minority of the state's population, were black men.
But while homicides and mass shootings get headlines, suicides get scant media attention.
“Suicide deaths are normally deaths occurring quietly, no media, little discussion as obituaries often have people dying unexpectedly,” said Jean Papalia, suicide prevention specialist with Safe Communities of Madison and Dane County. “There is still shame, stigma and misconceptions about suicide.”
Wisconsin in 2017 saw a slight decrease in suicides and homicides by gun, but the long-term trend has been a steady climb since 2011, when the state posted 445 gun deaths, 351 by suicide, 86 by homicide and the remainder by undetermined means.
The rise of gun deaths in the state coincides with a loosening of gun restrictions starting in 2011 that made it easier to buy and carry firearms. Some see the subsequent increase in concealed carry permits, handgun purchases and the repeal of a 48-hour waiting period for firearms purchase as a contributing factor in the worsening carnage.
“Wisconsin is a bit higher than the national average for ownership, and our rate of suicide reflects that,” Papalia said. “Where there are more guns, there are more suicides.”
Evidence has shown that states with loose gun laws and higher rates of gun ownership have higher rates of gun deaths. Studies done by the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health show that access to guns — by far the most common means for suicide — is a key factor. Other means, such as drugs, have proven to be far less lethal.
Last year, John Frey, UW-Madison emeritus professor of family medicine and community health, co-authored a study that found that the largest demographic for suicides in Wisconsin are rural white men age 45 and older.
“The fact that the rate continues to go up as people age is particularly disturbing since rural communities and smaller towns are seeing an aging demographic,” he said. “Improving situations that lead to social isolation and loneliness are an important intervention, but suicide prevention programs are very complicated to carry out.”
Complications include shortages of mental health providers in rural areas, where men with limited education are struggling with poverty and have access to guns, said Shel Gross, director of public policy for Mental Health America of Wisconsin.
“We know to the degree that this population is distressed, they are also one that is less likely to seek help,” he said.
The long-term rise in suicide rates among white men is a national phenomenon. And while sociological factors like poverty and isolation are motivating factors, access to guns can instantly turn thoughts of suicide into reality.
“As people get older, lonelier more socially isolated suicide is a fact whether or not you’re dealing with firearms,” said Frey. “But firearms just make it a whole lot easier.”
And there are plenty of guns to go around. Since 2009, the number of guns produced in America have more than doubled. According to a 2017 Pew survey, three in 10 Americans reported owning a gun, and another 11 percent said they don’t own a gun but live with someone who does.
That access to a means of suicide that, according to the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health has an 85 percent success rate, makes America a tragic outlier among advanced nations in terms of gun carnage.
CDC statistics for 2017 show a gun death rate of 12 per 100,000 people in the U.S. According to a recent JAMA report, that’s nearly six times the rate in Canada, 13 times the rate in Germany, 40 times the rate in the UK, and 60 times the rate in Japan.
Yet attempts to deal with the problem have sputtered out with little official support.
Frey pointed to an attempt several years ago by the Wisconsin Medical Society to get family doctors to ask patients to ask about guns and encourage trigger locks, which have been shown to protect both the families of gun owners, as well as the gun owners themselves.
“Anything that will create problems with somebody just grabbing a gun and shooting themselves,” he said. “Making it difficult has been show to stop people from going ahead with things sometimes.”
That initiative got off to a good start, “but then it just kind of petered out,” Frey said.
“That’s a good example of an initiative that could have been positively helpful,” he said, “but you needed to carry it on for five or 10 years.”
But another productive move, he said, would be to expand background checks, which Republicans and the gun advocates have staunchly opposed.
“It’s a baby-step,” he said, “but it’s movement in the right direction.”
But while background checks might prevent some violent offenders from buying guns, they would likely do little to prevent suicides.
“When you’re talking about background checks you’re looking for shooters who go into schools and public places and things like that,” he said. “That’s appropriate and I certainly support that approach, but what do you do, for example, with people who have a history of depression?”