I'm a researcher who studies the intersections of health and politics. That means I look at how people live and how they die, and how the votes they cast and the politicians they elect alter lives and life expectancies.
My current research focuses on white gun owners in Missouri—a state where politicians have dramatically scaled back laws regulating how guns are sold and carried, leading to what's been called a "natural experiment" in the effects of a heavily armed modern populace. Many gun owners cheered these developments as extensions of their constitutional rights. But the new laws went hand-in-hand with spiking rates of gun injury and death, including dramatic rises in gun suicides.
One woman I spoke with in southern Missouri told me about losing her husband. His work as a mechanic had been demanding, and money scarce. These were "usual pressures," but they steadily built to something unbearable. He drank more than usual. One day, he took one of the guns that the couple kept under their bed for protection, and ended his own life.
The woman struggled to make sense of unimaginable loss in ways that echoed the voices of others affected by suicide by firearm in pro-gun, white, working-class parts of the U.S. "This is gun country," she said. "We've grown up with our guns." And then, searingly, "But it haunts me every waking moment: What made him turn his own gun on himself?"
We rarely fully learn why a person is driven to suicide—each episode has its own painful logic of despair. But gun researchers can ask the broader questions: What larger factors contribute to suicide trends, and what might help us change course?
One answer may not surprise you, but it should enrage some gun owners: The NRA.
After all, gun access is a risk factor in a person's darkest moments, and policies limiting such access can make a real difference. That's the idea behind so-called “red flag laws,” which aim to curb the availability of guns to people in moments of peak stress, and thus stem impulses accelerating suicidal thoughts into actions. Recent research suggests these laws can lower gun suicide rates by between 7.5 percent and 13.7 percent, and the often temporary nature of the gun restrictions preserves the Second Amendment rights that many gun owners hold sacrosanct.
After long opposing them, the NRA actually indicated an uncharacteristic willingness to back these laws in the aftermath of the school massacre last year in Parkland, Florida. Then they returned to form. The group has been quietly working to block red flag legislation in states with high gun suicide rates like Texas and Tennessee, without proposing viable anti-suicide policy alternatives. The NRA was even found to have ghost written op-eds from law enforcement officers supporting so-called Second Amendment sanctuary zones where no such laws could ever take effect.
Gun researchers are accustomed to cynical resistance from the NRA. For decades, the gun lobby and the politicians it supports have worked to debunk, or even ban altogether, research or policymaking that might lead to regulations on any aspect of gun sales. But the NRA's recent opposition to red flag laws represents a particularly cruel twist, because gun suicide disproportionately affects the demographic group that makes up the core of American gun owners: white men, like the woman’s husband.
White men are particularly likely to be gun owners, especially in rural, pro-gun areas like southern Missouri. White men also comprise about 31 percent of the U.S. population—but 74 percent of firearm suicide victims. Recently released CDC data found that the overwhelming majority of Americans who ended their lives with guns in 2017 “were white (91 percent) and male (87 percent).” In effect, white men are the drivers of both gun sales and of epidemic levels of U.S. firearm suicide.
The perversity of this situation—a corporate gun lobby undermines research and policies that might make its product less deadly for its own consumers—in many ways symbolizes the larger dysfunction surrounding the U.S. gun "debate." To be sure, gun researchers like myself have at times promoted policy solutions with too little attention to the concerns of gun owners. Meanwhile, pro-gun communities that would benefit from better research about issues such as gun suicide are asked to defend corporate politics that endanger their own families and loved ones. The illusion that there is no middle ground, or that research and policy solutions are inherently biased, benefits no one—except the companies that want to sell us more guns.
It's time to work past this simplistic pro- versus anti-gun binary. In many parts of the U.S., guns are here to stay. But resistance to knowledge about how to help people live with guns so as to not die from them produces something often more deadly: inaction.
Jonathan M. Metzl directs the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University and is author of Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter.