Former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., who was gravely wounded in a 2011 mass shooting near Tucson, recently visited Virginia’s Capitol to push for tougher gun laws.
She and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, launched a coalition that will seek "common-sense solutions" to gun violence in the state. High on its list is convincing a resistant General Assembly to close loopholes in Virginia’s background check law for prospective gun buyers.
About a dozen community leaders and law-enforcement experts met with Giffords and Kelly to help set strategies. Among them was Mira Signer, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She said the availability of guns poses special risks to those with mental disorders.
States "that have the highest gun ownership also have the highest suicide rates," she said. "The evidence is there. We know that."
We wondered whether Signer’s statement is correct.
Signer told us her claim is based in part on a report called "The Truth About Guns and Suicide," published in September 2015 by the Brady Center & Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit advocating gun control.
The report says, "Studies examining firearm ownership and suicide rates at the national, state and regional levels provide further evidence of the firearm-suicide connection. They show that suicide rates, both overall and by firearm, are higher in areas where gun ownership is more widespread."
Footnotes in the report say the Brady Center’s statement is based on a series of studies by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center in Massachusetts - the last published in 2008. Researchers compared data that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention kept from 2000 to 2002 on the number of suicides in each state and the percentage of households in each state where at least one firearm was held.
"Among men, among women, and in every age group (including children), states with the higher rates of household gun ownership had higher rates of firearm suicides and overall suicides," the researchers wrote in an article published by The New England Journal of Medicine.
Why rely today on statistics that are more than decade old? Researchers say they’re still the best numbers available.
Every year, the CDC conducts an extensive health-risk poll with more than 250,000 U.S. adults that ‘s called the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. It used to ask participants whether they had guns in their homes. With its huge sample, the results could be broken down to statistically reliable percentages of households with a gun in each state.
The CDC, under congressional demands to stop researching gun issues, removed the question from the survey after 2004. Since then, no other poll has offered a reliable, detailed look at gun ownership rates in each state.
The CDC surveys showed that the top three states for percentage of household gun ownership - Wyoming, Montana and Alaska - often ranked as the three states with the highest suicide rates. Roughly 60 percent of households held firearms in those states, much higher than the national median of 40 percent. Their suicide rates, according to other CDC data, hovered around 20 people per 100,000 - nearly double the national average of about 11 per 100,000.
Conversely, the nine states with the lowest per-household gun ownership from 2001 to 2004 also had the nine lowest suicide rates. They were Hawaii, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, California, Illinois and Maryland.
Overall, the statistics show a distinct correlation between gun ownership and suicide rates in states. There are, of course, anomalies. Nevada, for example, ranked 36th in the percentage of households with guns from 2001 to 2004 but had fourth-highest suicide rate. Virginia, if you’re wondering, ranked 32nd in the percentage of household with guns and 34th in suicide rate during that period.
Signer’s statement was made in present tense, so there’s an issue of whether these old findings remain relevant.
The ranking of states based on suicide rates barely has changed over the years, according CDC data for 2013 - the latest final statistics available. Wyoming, Alaska and Montana still had the highest rates.
So that leaves the problem on quantifying household gun ownership in each state without updated, exhaustive surveys from the CDC.
YouGov, an international market research firm, conducted an Internet poll in 2013 that asked 4,622 U.S. adults to participate in an online survey that asked whether they owned guns. YouGov broke the numbers down by state and got results that broadly resembled the CDC figures.
Columbia University researchers used those figures in a 2013 paper on the gun culture in states and regions around the U.S. Bindu Kalesan, the lead researcher, told us in an email that the numbers for many states have a high margin of error.
Many analysts, in exploring a variety of gun issues, still cite the CDC state figures. David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, told us the numbers still are relevant.
"Gun ownership levels across states hardly change over time," he said. "For example, the best predictors of whether you will own a gun is whether you grew up with guns and whether your neighbors are gun owners or not." These indicators, Hemenway said, "don’t switch back and forth."
Hemenway sent us four studies from other researchers that also connected the presence of guns to high suicide rates.
"It all makes sense psychologically," he said, "since so many suicides are pretty spontaneous with little planning and people use whatever is handy. The urge passes and people who have survived even serious suicide attempts rarely go on to kill themselves. The case fatality rate for guns is 90 percent, while the case fatality rate for the two most common forms of suicide attempts - pills and cutting - is under 3 percent."
Signer said states that have "the highest gun ownership rates also have the highest suicide rates."
Exhaustive data collected by the CDC at the start of the century supports her statement. The three states with the highest percentage of household gun ownership - Alaska, Wyoming and Montana - also had the three highest suicide rates. The correlation between the availability of guns and suicide rates, while not as exact across the nation, certainly existed in most other states. The nine states with the lowest household gun rates also had the lowest suicide rates.
The ranking of states by their suicide rates barely has changed over the years. But the CDC has stopped surveying gun ownership in states, and nothing nearly as reliable has filled the void. A much smaller poll conducted in 2013 suggests the ranking of states by the percentage of homes with guns hasn’t changed much either. And there’s no shortage of researchers, past and present, who have concluded there is a strong link between the presence of guns and suicides.
So we rate Signer’s statement True.
Editor's Note: An earlier headline on this story misspelled Signer's first name.