Alaska guns

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Alaska’s leading cause of suicide deaths/Craig Medred photo

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.

“There is no definitive answer for why so many, mostly young, Greenlanders take their own lives,”  writes Charlie Tomb in Borgen magazine

“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.












23 replies »

  1. Well, that is a muddle. We start with Alaska and end up with Greenland, where I am sure firearm laws are quite different. The real question, however, is that not all suicides are the same. The suicide of a 15-year-old is not the same as the suicide of a 45-year-old is not the same as the suicide of an 85-year-old.

    • we start with Alaska and we end with Greenland because rural Alaska, where the suicide rate is the highest, has a lot in common with Greenland. and we end with Greenland because though guns are common there, the suicide rate from gunfire is significantly lower than in Alaska. guns are licensed in Greenland, but it does not appear hard obtain because people need them. you sort of have to have a firearm to live a subsistence lifestyle where the only food is meat for much of the year. guns are necessary tools in much of greenland:

      • I remember reading that NPR article. So if Greenlanders commit suicide at a high ratio, but they do not use guns to do it, what is the apples-to-apples comparison with Alaska? Greenland is truly colonized, administered by Denmark in a top-down fashion, even more than the Native populations in today’s Alaska experience, I suspect. What other cultural/ethnic/historical factors line up and which do not?

      • well, you just nailed part of it, didn’t you? Alaska is truly colonized and many in rural Alaska believe, rightly or wrongly, it is run in a top-down fashion. but probably the biggest similarity is the lack of hope among young people who face very uncertain futures caught between the old world and the new world, and given the technology of today, they’re all exposed to the new world.

  2. Most psychologists believe depression is the number one reason for suicide. Alcohol also seems to play a major role in the final act’s of suicidal thought. So, until Alaska works on solving the alcohol dependency issue and addressing the root causes for depression (like bullying and peer abuse among teens)…gun control will not dent the number of suicides, like Greenland, they would just switch to hanging.

  3. DSM expansion – the perfect weapon. Didn’t one of the 2 “Doctors” who wrote the DSM 5 blow the whistle that they were unethically pressured and threatened by the feds to “expand” the criteria and definition of “mental illness”. Nobody wants to talk about that though. Why would there be pressure put on the them to “expand” those illnesses to include virtually everyone unless it was to turn it into a pseudo-scientific political weapon? They knew what they were doing.

  4. There are over 370 “mental disorders” listed in the latest version of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.) The list includes “Tobacco Addiction Disorder” among other equally mundane and ridiculous so-called “mental illnesses.”

    If the DSM is the standard by which politicians wishes to remove our rights to own guns, then I’d guess 90% of the American people could probably be classified with a mental disorder of one kind or another.


  5. so how many deaths/injuries were firearm related? When i participated in the BOG dealing with mandatory Hunter education, no one really ever produced data on how this program would reduce firearm hunting accidents, or at that time, how many incidents had occurred.. Just wondering if this study has any information on this subject?
    Hunter education has cost the DWC hundreds of thousand of dollars. Would this report support such spendsures?

    • Allen: this report would not seem to support that expenditure, but there is a problem. the relatively recent time frame brings a lot of people into the picture who’ve undergone hunter ed and been exposed to some training in firearms safety. if that training is working, it would serve to bring the fatality/accident down. my personal observation has been that gun handling in this state remains pretty marginal, and we could probably use more safety training not less. the other thing i have noticed is that the best trained are former military; so our data may be skewed there, too. we have a lot of former military here. i also admit i was surprised at how low the number for accidental firearms deaths. it might simply reflect that it’s a lot easier to miss a target than to hit a target.

      • NYTimes anti gun editor Joe Nocera started a gun blog 2012 to emberass law abiding gun owners

        Funny thing, he closed it in 2014 as 97 of the 100 incidents posted involved criminals already banned from having a gun being careless or careless during commission of a crime

        Why is it when anti gun advocates are challenged, they refuse to provide proof that this trend of the vast majority of accidental deaths being caused by criminals isn’t true in all 50 states….🤔

      • It maybe ture gun handling may be poor in this state. what i want to know has it improved since the enactment of mandatory hunter ed.?

        When this proposal came in front of the BOG there was little data to reflect hunter deaths/accidents related to hunting. Mainly anecdotal and new paper reports.(which was very few per person hunting) So have things changed? do we have less because of this political correctness to educate? Is it cost effective? If it works so well and is promoted by large political groups who advocate the right to carry and hunt, such as the NRA. why don’t these groups promote gun handling for all who own guns or want to purchase guns? When i had asked the NRA why they supported gun handling for hunting and were opposed to the same for gun owners/purchasers, they never gave me a complete answer.

        So i will ask again. Why is it correct to have mandatory gun handling for hunter in this state(those born after 1986) and not have owner of guns(non hunting actives) to have the the same requirement?

  6. Ah, those Alaskans! They shouldn’t be ALLOWED to have guns! Let’s take ’em away!

    (Note how the author puts sneer quotes around the word, subsistence. Yeah, no bias THERE….)

    • the quotes are around the word “subsistence” because the story is read by people everywhere and “hunting and fishing ” as a legally defined means of subsistence is pretty much unique to Alaska. others might hunt and fish to a great deal to subsist, including those in other U.S. states, but it is not defined as subsistence. it is simply called hunting and fishing.
      meanwhile who said anything about taking away guns?

      • Disingenuous. The rather large photo of the handgun at the top of the article with the caption “Alaska’s leading cause of suicide deaths/Craig Medred photo” kinda exposes your slant.

        The photo w/caption baldly claims that guns “cause” suicide deaths. Really? What are you implying, if not eliminating the “cause” of Alaska’s suicides?

      • actually, Barry, it’s a factual reality. most Alaska suicides are by firearm and a handgun is the firearm of choice here.

        and nowhere in that story does it say guns “cause” suicides. did you actually read the article? it said:

        “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.”

        the story actually says in black and white the opposite of what you suggest it is “implying.”

  7. I enjoy the way liberals make up their own meanings for words when it suits their agenda. For example, Medred believes “odds are high” is a good way to note a percentage that ranges about 0.01. In other words, if you own a gun you have about a one tenth of one percent chance that you will commit suicide with it. That certainly meets the common understanding of “high odds” eh.

    • Jack: you make an excellent point, but you’re confusing annual death rates and odds. your percentage is also wrong. it’s high. the percentage per year would be 0.003. odds, however, are calculated over lifetimes not by year.
      the annual death rate for falls is 10 per 100,000, but the odds of dying from a fall are calculated at 1 in 171. i’ve attached a chart. the firearm death rate for Northern and Southwestern Alaska is about 35 per 100,000; so we’re looking at lifetime odds of dying somewhere in the range of 1 in 50. is that high?
      not compared to heart disease (1 in 6) or cancer (1 in 7); both of which occur at a higher rate in rural Alaska than in most of America and thus would have even worse odds for rural Alaskans. but the odds out there for firearm deaths are way higher than for u.s. car accident deaths (1 in 303). give all this we could probably has some stupid, Bill Clintonesque debate about the meaning of “high.”
      except you either misread the sentence in question or have decided to mischaracterize it because you believe i’m a “liberal.” if you go back and reread, you will see that what the sentence says is that “the firearm that sustains you could well be the TOOL that kills you.”
      and in that context, the odds are high. of all the tools people in rural Alaska use – snowmachines, ATVs, knives, chainsaws, river boats, heavy equipment, etc., etc. – the firearm is the tool that is far and away most likely to kill them. sadly, the other tools also accidentally kill far too many, but the odds they will do that are nowhere near as high as for guns.
      i guess, a liberal could make an argument that taking guns away from rural Alaskans would protect them (though if you read the full story you might have noted that as the data for Greenland indicates you can have a staggering rate of suicidal death without firearms) but it wouldn’t make their lives better. you seem to be laboring under some illusion this was some sort of secret meaning hidden in the story. it wasn’t.
      imposing gun control on rural Alaska would make people’s lives far worse, not better. i don’t have the time now to get into all the reasons why, but they start with – as the lead on that story notes – the need for people to sustain themselves and they go on from there into various cultural issues.
      now here’s a chart on odds:

    • Poor Craig

      CDC 2013 shows there were over 1.31 mil suicides attempted in 2013

      As suicide by choice of firearm is 95% effective, and only 20,000 suicides by choice of a gun, we see that suicides attempted by use of a gun account for 2.15% of all suicides attempted, making it the least chosen method of suicide attempted…hmmmm

      Why so much concern for the least chosen method of suicide?

      Suicide hasn’t been a felony crime in the US in any state since 1992.

      Suicide, albeit a selfish act, is a person choosing to control their own body…

      Clearly it’s not murder as murder is defined as taking of another’s life without said victims permission

      Oh wait, there is another legal act of a person controlling their own body…women claim having an abortion is controlling their own body

      But then those women don’t ask the fetus permission so by default that is the legal definition of murder

      Did we forget to mention that you cannot go to any nation which implemented strict gun control and demonstrate a reduction in suicides attempted…after implementation of strict gun control

      Multiple govt studies from Australia point this out

  8. These studies point to an attitude of indifference to the root cause of the problem, if it actually is a problem. The tool used to kill ones self is unimportant. I don’t ever recall anyone calling for a ban on rope that so many suicides use. Physical pain is often used as a reason to ok suicide. I think mental pain can be at least as intense but is not a good reason to take ones life according to common reasoning. Questions don’t always have simple answers.

  9. As far as firearms and suicide rates go, our national suicide rate is not the highest among the “developed” nations usually held up as examples of successful gun control. Certainly not in anything approaching a relationship to the disparate numbers of firearms between us. While correlation does not equal causation, a lack of correlation makes causation impossible. That lack alone should throw the “legal firearms access is a primary driver of suicide rates” theory out the window.*

    There is a recent study out of Pretoria, South Africa, which instituted restrictive gun control in ’94 a couple years after the end of Apartheid. What they have seen since was a reduction in *firearms* suicides, but an increase in hangings, for no meaningful change in overall suicide fatalities. The conventional wisdom in this country is that there is no proof of a substitution effect, but when we look internationally we don’t see any statistically significant changes in overall suicide rates following imposition of more restrictive gun control laws in those countries. Which makes sense, the people who are truly bent on suicide, not crying for help, who deliberately intend to kill themselves will use the most lethal method they can access. (Though there are internationally consistent difference between the sexes. Men primarily choose hanging or firearms if available, women poisoning.)

    The attempt to address suicide, a cultural and sociological problem, by focusing on generalized restrictions on firearm access would be, as are so many gun control proposals, a waste of time and limited resources.

    * While almost certainly too small a change to be statistically meaningful, per the CDC the percentage of suicides involving firearms nationwide has gone from just over 50% to just under 50% in recent years (2004-2015), even as the overall suicide rate has increased. While this can almost certainly be explained by an increase in suicide among demographics who don’t primarily choose firearms as a method, it remains an inverse correlation with the increased numbers of, and access to, firearms over the same period.

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