rural gun deaths exceed urban rates by 28% due to increased suicide rates

This story was originally published by Missouri Independent. This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Higher prevalence of gun ownership in rural America has contributed to an increase in suicides and raised the overall rate of gun deaths in rural areas over those in urban communities.

Experts say some legal interventions, which have widespread public support, could help reduce the risk of people using guns to harm themselves or others.

In 2020, the rural death rate from guns was 28% higher than the urban rate. Non-metropolitan counties reported 17.01 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to a rate of 13.19 in urban America, according to CDC reports.

Although urban areas have higher gun homicide rates, rural locations have higher gun deaths overall because suicides account for about two-thirds of gun deaths nationwide, said Tufts University School of Medicine researcher Michael Siegel. Siegel says it’s important to break down gun deaths into three groups.

“There’s gun homicide, gun suicide, and accidental injury,” Siegel said.

Siegel said the high suicide rates in rural America can be partially explained by the prevalence of gun ownership. According to studies by the PEW Center, while 46% of rural residents report owning guns, only 19% of city dwellers report owning guns.

“Because we know that guns are the deadliest means of suicide, if a gun is available, attempting suicide is likely to result in death,” Siegel said. “Whereas when there are no guns around, other methods people might use to attempt suicide are not as deadly.”

Mandatory waiting times

Siegel said preventive measures such as mandatory wait times and red-flag laws can reduce death rates from guns.

“Suicide is an impulsive behavior, so people who might be feeling suicidal when they can just run into the store and get a gun that day can use it,” Siegel said. “But if there is a mandatory waiting period before they are allowed to deliver the weapon, then by the time that waiting period is over they may be out of their crisis.”

Wait times could help rural communities in the American West, which have some of the highest suicide rates in the country. Montana’s suicide rate in 2019 was 27 suicides per 100,000 people, twice the national rate. Sixty percent of suicides were committed with firearms.

From 2019 to 2021, Flathead County, Montana recorded a suicide rate of 39.3 suicides per 100,000 people. The overall death rate from firearms in 2021 was 22.67 deaths per 100,000 people, 65% more than the national rate of 13.73.

Waiting times would not deter those who already own guns from committing suicide. Given the prevalence of gun ownership in rural America, warning signals may be more effective in depriving those who pose a threat of firearms.

Laws with red flags

The specifics of Red Flag laws vary from state to state and may go by different names. They allow law enforcement agencies or affected family members to request a court to remove firearms from people who are perceived as a threat to themselves or others.

In Illinois, for example, family and household members can apply to deprive a person of firearms for up to six months. On the other hand, some states only allow law enforcement to file a petition in court to seize firearms, with seizure periods ranging from six months to a year.

The evidence required to confiscate firearms also varies. Some requirements are stricter than others, but experts and citizens alike support these laws to prevent violence.

In rural Dillon County, South Carolina, the 2020 gun fatality rate was 88.91. At more than six times the national rate, Dillon had the worst firearms death rate of any non-metropolitan county that year.

In 2020, Dillon County’s gun death rate was 61.9% higher than Mississippi County, Arkansas, the next highest non-metropolitan county. But unlike most other rural counties, the high gun deaths were the result of homicides, not suicide.

In 2020, 4.4% of all deaths in Dillon were homicides, compared to just 1% of all deaths in the state of South Carolina. Reporter Braley Dodson said that in 2020, 1 in 25 deaths in Dillon County was a homicide.

“In 2021, we’ve seen the number of shootings in Dillon and Darlington County skyrocket in areas that used to have maybe one homicide a year … we saw several earlier in the year,” Dodson said in an interview.

Dodson told the Daily Yonder that local law enforcement believe the spike in homicides was due to drug-related activity that had recently moved to the area from elsewhere.

Law enforcement repeatedly told Dodson that “the players are the same.” In other words, the perpetrators of violence are often the same people.

“There was a guy on bail for a double or triple homicide who was arrested for another shooting,” Dodson said. “The pandemic has postponed some of these trials and judges had a certain amount of time to try a person or they would release them on bail.”

Although warning signals could have prevented some of these crimes by confiscating the firearms of those already arrested for gun violence, some violence is committed with stolen guns. Because of this, local police are urging residents to keep their guns locked, safe and out of the reach of children. Dodson said she found that a quarter of the victims of shootings in the area last year were under the age of 19.

A five-year-old in Dillon County accidentally earlier this month shot himself and his sister after getting his hands on an improperly stored handgun.

Overwhelming support for safeguards

Siegel said support for red-flag laws and mandatory waiting times tends to cross the political divide.

“It’s beyond city and country, it’s beyond Red State versus Blue State, it’s even beyond political parties,” Siegel said. “Even if you just look at Republican gun ownership, there is very broad support for it [mandatory waiting periods and red flag laws].”

Siegel said he’s found that over 60% of Republican gun owners support red flag legislation.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced the Extreme Risk Protection Order and Violence Protection Act, a bipartisan protection measure to encourage states to enact red flag laws “while continuing to provide due process protections.”

Rubio isn’t the only Republican supporting similar legislation. South Carolina Sen. Lyndsey Graham has backed bipartisan protective orders.

“There are many conservative states that have passed domestic violence or red flag laws,” he said.

In a recent interview with gun safety organization Everytown, Siegel said his research also shows broad support for other safety measures, such as background checks. The poll results show that 87% of gun owners support background checks for concealed carry permits, while 79% support firearm removal for those subject to a domestic violence restraining order.

“Except for the NRA [National Rifle Association]”There’s really no one saying that people who are known to pose a risk to themselves or others should have access to a gun,” Siegel said. “When you talk about these laws that are really aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of people who are at high risk of violence, that seems like a principle everyone agrees with.”

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