U.S. gun deaths shaped by race

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WASHINGTON -- Gun deaths are shaped by race in America. Whites are far more likely to shoot themselves, and African-Americans are far more likely to be shot by someone else.

The statistical difference is dramatic, according to a Washington Post analysis of data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A white person is five times as likely to commit suicide with a gun as to be shot with a gun; for each African-American who uses a gun to commit suicide, five are killed by other people with guns.

Where a person lives matters, too. Gun deaths in urban areas are much more likely to be homicides, while suicide is far and away the dominant form of gun death in rural areas. States with the most guns per capita, such as Montana and Wyoming, have the highest suicide rates; states with low gun ownership rates, such as Massachusetts and New York, have far fewer suicides per capita.

Suicides and homicides are highly charged human dramas. Both acts shatter families, friends and sometimes communities. But the reactions are as different as black and white, and those differences shape the nation's divided attitudes toward gun control.

For instance, African-Americans tend to be stronger backers of tough gun controls than whites. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this month found that about three-quarters of blacks support stronger controls, compared with about half of whites. The poll also found that two-thirds of city dwellers support stronger gun controls, while only about a third of rural residents back them.

Gun homicides, especially mass shootings, tend to spark demands for change. Although suicides account for almost twice as many gun deaths as homicides nationwide, they tend to be quiet tragedies, unnoticed outside the hushed confines of family and friends.

Suicide is "absent from the discussion of gun policy," said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore. "The availability of firearms does indeed increase the risk of suicide, but most people don't see it that way."

Opponents of gun control counter that some countries with high gun ownership rates, such as Israel, have few suicides and that countries such as Russia, where guns are scarce, have high rates of suicide. The reasoning is that determined people can find a way to kill themselves, although suicide experts say the prevalence of guns makes allows for impulse suicides that otherwise might not occur.

The most ardent advocate of gun rights, the National Rifle Association, casts the link between guns and suicide as something of a virtue. "Gun owners are notably self-reliant and exhibit a willingness to take definitive action when they believe it to be in their own self-interest," the NRA wrote in a fact sheet, called "Suicide and Firearms," on the website for the group's lobbying arm. "Such action may include ending their own life when the time is deemed appropriate."

Contrasting life experiences, whether from a family member's suicide or the death of a relative in a homicide, drive the nation's split over an essential element of the gun debate: Would fewer guns save lives? Survivors of homicide victims consistently tell pollsters that the answer is yes, but the response to suicide is different.

"We have less empathy with those who take their own lives," said Sean Joe, an expert on suicide and violence at the University of Michigan. "So we don't have the same national outcry. The key argument for me is that increased access to firearms increases suicide and homicide."

Scholars say it is no coincidence that places in the United States with high suicide rates also have high gun ownership rates. By contrast, the states with the lowest gun ownership rates tend to have the lowest suicide rates.

Eleanor Hamm works at the statewide suicide hotline for Colorado, which has high rates of gun ownership and suicide. Her suicide-prevention program is accredited by the American Association of Suicidology, but her experience with guns, which started when she got her first at 6, puts her closer to the NRA than the suicide association.

"The Western region is the highest region in suicide," she said in an interview. "Out here, we own guns. You're not ever going to get the guns away from anybody. What we can do is a better job of mental health. That will make a difference."

Ms. Hamm, echoing the NRA position, said people without access to guns will kill themselves by other means. "It's easy for the passion of the day to look at gun control," she said. "It's missing the point of mental health and what is really, truly taking place."

But experts say the urge to commit suicide is neither unstoppable nor permanent. "I emphasize that suicide is preventable -- treatment works," said Iliana Gilman, spokeswoman for a crisis hotline in Austin, Texas.

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