If you live in the wilds of Northern or Southwest Alaska, the odds are high that the firearm that sustains you could well be the tool that kills you.
A new study from State of Alaska Epidemiology examining gun deaths from 2009 to 2015 shows staggering death rate for the two areas of Alaska.
The firearm death rates for Southwest, 35.7 per 100,000 people, and the North, 34.2 per 100,000, were more than twice that for the state’s largest city.
Buried in the report was a state homicide rate of 3.6 per 100,000 over the seven-year period. That’s significantly lower than the national homicide rate of 4.9 per 100,000.
Alaska is reported to have the highest rate of gun ownership in the country, and there is little doubt rural Alaska has the highest rate of gun ownership in the state.
Most rural communities lack for any sort of local economy, and people still depend in large part on hunting and fishing – what Alaskans call “subsistence” – for food. It is possible to hunt with a bow and arrows instead of a firearm, but it is not easy to do so.
As a result, guns are as common as brooms in rural households. That makes them easily accessible to those with suicidal thoughts.
The death rates in rural Southwest and Northern Alaska are more than three times the national rate of 10.3 per 100,000, but do reflect the national predominance of suicide. Nationally, about twice as many people kill themselves with guns as commit homicides with guns.
The numbers are even more heavily weighted toward suicide in Alaska, the state found.
Of the 1,000 firearms deaths between 2009 and 2015, 750 – a full 75 percent – were suicides. The suicide rate was highest in men aged 20 to 24 who killed themselves at the mind-boggling rate of 118.5 per 100,000.
That, too, tracked national trends, though the Alaska rates are far, far higher.
Nationally, “males take their own lives at nearly four times the rate
of females and represent 77.9 percent of all suicides,” according to the Centers for Disease Control. “The percentage of adults who made a suicide plan in
the past year was higher among adults aged 18 to 25.”
The Alaska report noted a high percentage of suicide victims struggling with depression, or anxiety or bipolar disorders in the days before their deaths.
“Nearly one-third of suicide decedents had a known mental health problem,” it noted.
“Moreover, the firearm injury hospitalization rate increased every year since 2011. Taken together, these findings provide insight into the public health impact of gun violence in Alaska, and convey the importance of assuring that sufficient suicide, violence, mental health, alcohol abuse, and drug abuse prevention and treatment
programs are available statewide.”
Southeast Alaska and Anchorage had the state’s lowest rates of firearms deaths despite the latter’s growing reputation as the homicide capital of Alaska. And the study noted 32 deaths due to “legal interventions,” either self-defense shootings or shootings by law enforcement officers, and 36 deaths as the result of accidental shootings.
The chances of being accidentally shot were pegged at 0.7 per 100,000. For comparison sake, the CDC says the death rate for accidental poisonings is 13.2 per 100,000; for motor vehicle accidents, 10.6 per 100,000; and for falls, 10 per 100,000.
The state study spawned predictable headlines in the mainstream media:
“New research offers window into Alaska’s high rate of gun deaths” headlined the Alaska Dispatch News.
“Study: Alaskans love guns to death,” proclaimed the Juneau Empire.
Alaska has long had a suicide crisis as do many northern lands. Greenland is reported to have the world’s highest suicide rate at 400 per 100,000. Only about a third of the suicides there were reported to involve firearms.
A study in Greenland reported 46 percent of suicide victims died by hanging, 37 percent by shooting; 4 percent from drowning and 2 percent by jumping from heights.
There is no way of knowing if suicide would go down if some form of gun control were imposed in Alaska, or if so, by how much.
“Some hypothesized that seasonal affective disorder caused by the dark winters may contribute to high rate of suicides. But more suicides occur during summer months, and the rate only began spiking in the 70s and 80s.
“Many Greenlanders blame rampant poverty, unemployment and alcoholism. Inuit populations in other countries also suffer from similarly high suicide rates, and psychology studies have also suggested correlations to poverty. ”
Northern and Southwest Alaska are part of one of those other countries Tomb references. Borgen magazine is a product of the Borgen Project, an anti-poverty effort.