During the 12-year span between the mass shootings at Columbine and Aurora, Coloradans used guns to kill themselves about four times more frequently than they used them to kill each other, an I-News analysis of death certificates found.
The analysis, which covered the years 2000 through 2011, also found that white residents disproportionately committed suicides with guns while minorities were disproportionately victims of homicide shootings.
In the wake of the July 20 attack at the Century Aurora 16, which left 12 people dead and more than 50 injured, state legislators introduced a flurry of measures, including proposals to prohibit the sale of high-capacity magazines, impose universal background checks, and ban people with concealed weapons permits from carrying guns on college campuses. The bills have sparked sometimes-emotional debate and prompted large protests as gun rights activists and supporters of the proposals beseeched lawmakers and Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Earlier this week, a plane circling central Denver towed a banner that read: "Hick: Don't Take Our Guns."
But people on both sides of the debate said that the reality of Colorado's firearms deaths – that more than three-quarters of them are suicides – means that the proposals may do little to put much of a dent in the overall loss of life involving guns.
"I think that really goes much more to the issue of responsible ownership – that if you know you've got someone in your home who is struggling with depression, or something like that, you really ought to take active steps to either not have one or make sure if you do it is locked up," said Tom Mauser, who has worked to pass gun control measures in the nearly 14 years since his son, Daniel, was killed at Columbine High.
"These are not suicide reduction bills, and no responsible person would claim they are," said David Kopel, a law professor at the University of Denver and research director at the Independence Institute who has testified against some of the gun proposals. "They are, at their best, and their ideals, crime reduction bills."
I-News analyzed data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on deaths from firearms between 2000 and 2011, the latest year available. The information comes from death certificates. It found:
- Suicides accounted for 76 percent of the 6,258 deaths from guns over the 12 years, while homicides comprised 20 percent. The rest were either accidental, legal shootings by law enforcement officers, or unexplained. Nationally, about 60 percent of gun deaths are suicides.
- Gun suicides were disproportionately committed by white residents, while homicide victims were predominately minority. White residents, who make up 70 percent of the state's population, accounted for 88 percent of the gun suicides. On the other hand, 58 percent of homicide victims were minorities, who comprise 30 percent of the state's residents. Blacks were victims in 21 percent of the homicides, but only make up 4 percent of Colorado's population. Latinos were victims in 34 percent of homicides, while comprising 21 percent of the state's population.
- Gun death victims were overwhelmingly male. They accounted for 85 percent of all deaths involving guns and 87 percent of suicides using guns.
- Those over age 70 had the highest rate of overall deaths from guns, 18 for every 100,000 residents of that age group. They were almost exclusively suicides. The 21-to-30 age group had the highest rate of homicides, about 5 for every 100,000.
I-News also calculated gun death rates by county and found wide geographic disparities.
Based on the number of overall gun deaths during the 12 years, the highest rates were in Montrose, Mesa, Fremont and Pueblo counties among medium- and large-sized counties – those with populations of more than 40,000.
The lowest rates were in Eagle, Douglas, Weld and Boulder counties. Denver and El Paso counties had the highest number of overall deaths involving guns, 831 and 804 respectively, but their rates per 100,000 residents ranked them in the middle among the counties.
Denver did have the highest number of residents killed in homicides, 342 over the 12 years or 5 per every 100,000 people, followed by Pueblo and Adams counties. El Paso County had the highest overall death toll from gun suicides, 596 over the 12 years, but Mesa had the highest rate of residents killing themselves with guns among larger counties, 15.6 per 100,000 residents.
Lanny Berman, a psychologist who is executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, said that the issue of guns and suicide is complex – and confusing. Overall in the United States, the percentage of suicides committed with guns has fallen in recent years even as the overall number of suicides hasn't changed much.
"I'd like to think that it's come down because there's been a lot of public education and work in that area," Berman said. "That said, hanging deaths have increased, and we can't figure out how to engage restricted access to ropes and other forms of ligature. I can argue safe storage of a firearm, and convince some people that's wise, but belts, and guitar straps and anything else one might use to hang themselves with, I have no argument."
People whose suicide attempts are unsuccessful don't necessarily go on to kill themselves, Berman said.
Legislators gather at the Old Supreme Court Chambers in the Colorado State Capitol on Feburary 13, 2013 in Denver as they prepare to hear one of a handful of bills on gun regulation.(Joe Mahoney/The I-News Network | Rocky Mountain PBS)
"The people who have been rescued off the Golden Gate Bridge – a very small portion of them go on to die by suicide," he said. "If you can intervene – in this case by restricting access – people change their mind, good things happen, they get into treatment, time changes a lot of things. Who knows what, but things happen and people don't necessarily stay suicidal. That's just what we know about being suicidal, it waxes and wanes and is highly responsive to the moment. So change the moment and you're going to save lives."
Mauser, who said he backed the measures introduced this year because he believed they represented reasonable efforts to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them, also lamented the reality that when a gun is involved the odds of surviving a suicide attempt are small.
"You're more likely to survive some of the other things," Mauser said. "You're not going to survive a gunshot to the head."
Kopel, who said as a "card-carrying Roman Catholic" he was opposed to suicide, also expressed little hope that legislation could do much about the majority of gun deaths.
"The vast majority of gun deaths are suicides, and of those, they are hugely skewed to males and hugely skewed to older populations," he said. "I think it's highly unrealistic to think that any form of gun control is going to reduce suicide in this group."