Nearly three of four gun deaths in Wisconsin are suicides, many among rural, white men ages 45 and older, a new study says.
The state’s proportion of firearm deaths that are suicides — 72 percent — is higher than the national average of 60 percent, according to the study by UW-Madison researchers in the Wisconsin Medical Journal.
Though the state’s overall rate of deaths from guns is lower than the national average, the rate has been on the rise in recent years.
Dr. John Frey, an author of the study, said the findings underscore a federal report last week showing that a surge in deaths from opioid overdoses, along with an uptick in suicides, led to the first two-year drop in life expectancy, in 2015 and 2016, since the early 1960s.
“We’re doing better at cancer and heart disease, at things that medicine can address,” said Frey, a UW professor emeritus of family medicine and medical editor of the Wisconsin Medical Journal. “But the society factors that affect length of life are getting worse.”
Frey and Wen-Jan Tuan, a data analyst for UW’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, looked at firearm deaths in the state as the nation marked the five-year anniversary this month of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
From 2000 to 2014, Wisconsin had 6,966 deaths from guns, including 5,020 from suicide, 1,723 from homicide and 223 from other causes, including accidental shootings and police shootings.
Rates of suicides and homicides from firearms inched up during the second half of the period analyzed, and continued to increase in 2015 and 2016, years not covered by the study, Tuan said.
The gun suicide rate was highest among men, whites, people age 45 and older and residents in the northern part of the state, which is the most rural of five regions.
The rate was lowest in the southeastern region, the most urban.
Suicides among older rural white men could stem from a shortage of mental health services in small towns, and reflect social isolation and displeasure about economic or social conditions, Frey said.
“There’s a disintegration of community,” he said. “In many ways, suicide is an act of anger.”
Doctors look for risk factors for suicide among patients, but “I think we’re doing a lousy job of that,” Frey said.
Electronic medical records potentially could help doctors track a significant risk factor: people living by themselves.
“But there’s no field for ‘lives alone,’” he said.
The Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission assesses homicides in an attempt to curb them.
The same approach could be applied to rural suicides, Frey said.
“It’s kind of an epidemic that is invisible,” he said. “It has such a stigma, so people don’t talk about it.”
From 2000 to 2014, southeastern Wisconsin had 1,381 gun homicides, 80 percent of the state’s total.
Black men were 20 times more likely to die from homicides involving firearms than white men, with black women three times more likely than white women.
Suicides among older rural white men and homicides among younger urban black men might seem like disparate problems. But they involve similar factors, including poverty, job insecurity and lack of education, Frey said.
“Both of these issues have to do with factors in communities, what we call social determinants of health,” he said.