Alaska has the highest rate of gun ownership in the United States. It also has one of the highest rates of gun deaths and injuries, according to a new report by the Alaska Section of Epidemiology.
The report, published Wednesday in the section’s bulletin, examined three statewide databases and found almost 1,500 people were injured or killed by firearms from the start of 2009 to the end of 2015.
Alaska’s rate of firearm deaths is the second-highest in the country, behind only Montana, according to figures compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The main reason for those deaths and injuries? Suicide.
“That is a big takeaway,” said Deborah Hull-Jilly, the public health expert who coordinated the report. “A firearm, method-wise, is one of the most lethal (methods of suicide). Very unforgiving. The survival rate for these types of injuries is very, very small,” she said.
Epidemiologists treat firearms deaths like any other public health crisis: They compile data and track the disease. Alaska has a wide range of community and state groups devoted to reducing the suicide rate, and this report will go to them.
“As a partnership, as a stakeholder, this is a hard topic to grapple with,” Hull-Jilly said. “Can we find those factors that we can somehow intercede to somehow prevent this?”
“We haven’t really nailed this one yet, and I think it requires some more conversation at the highest level as well as at the community level,” said James Gallanos, program coordinator for Alaska’s community-based suicide prevention program.
Gallanos said some of the state’s efforts to date include encouraging families and communities to simply think about firearms in the first place. If a family asks for help and is concerned about a loved one, or if a friend finds out his friend is thinking of suicide, Gallanos said Alaskans should be thinking about firearms.
“It may appear to be obvious, but oftentimes in a crisis, those things may be overlooked,” he said. “We need to do a better job of working with families, working with communities in this area.”
Gallanos said there’s also Second Amendment issues to consider. If someone disagrees that they’re a danger to themselves or others, they might react badly to having their firearms restricted.
“That gets a reaction, especially around Second Amendment issues,” Gallanos said. “That’s a consideration for us.”
Hull-Jilly suggested that simply removing ammunition from the home isn’t an appropriate alternative. Some ammunition is interchangable between weapons and is easier to purchase than another firearm. In addition, a firearm (or ammunition) could be hidden and unknown to others.
According to the report, there were exactly 1,000 firearm fatalities in Alaska during the six analyzed years. Another 488 people were injured. More than 80 percent were men. They were mostly middle-aged, but the victims included infants and octogenarians. The oldest person was 95. The youngest was less than 1 year old.
Of the 1,000 fatalities, 750 were due to suicide and 152 were homicides. The rest were due to accidents, police intervention or could not be determined from the data.
According to the new study, 19.7 Alaskans per 100,000 population are killed by firearms every year. The figure in Montana is 19.85 per 100,000.
In Alaska, as in Montana, the principal reason for that death rate is suicide.
According to the vital statistics section of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Alaska’s suicide rate is now the highest it has been in at least 20 years.
According to 2015 figures published in January, suicide is the No. 5 leading cause of death in Alaska. Cancer is No. 1, followed by heart disease and accidents.
The Alaska Suicide Prevention Council previously determined that 55 percent of Alaska’s suicides from 2003 to 2008 involved a firearm.
What isn’t clear from the new report or from the prevention council’s work is whether the presence of firearms contributes to Alaska’s high suicide rate, or if other factors are causing that high rate, and firearms are simply used because they are available.
A 2015 study in the journal Injury Prevention found 61.7 percent of Alaskans own at least one firearm, the highest rate in the country. The study, which conducted more than 4,500 surveys nationwide, found that the national average was just 29.1 percent.
“There’s a lot of factors, and it depends on the individual,” Hull-Jilly said. “You can’t say that because you’re depressed, you’re going to reach for a gun.”
Editor’s Note: Suicide is a serious topic. If you’re in trouble and need help, please talk to someone. If you don’t think you can talk to someone in person, call the Alaska CARELINE at 1-877-266-HELP, or visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the Alaska Community Mental Health Centers, or juneausuicideprevention.org.
Correction: The original version of this story attributed quotes to Rebecca Hull-Jilly instead of Deborah Hull-Jilly. This story has been edited with the correct attribution. The story has also been edited to clarify Hull-Jilly’s comments on removing a firearm or ammunition from the home of someone threatening suicide.
Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 523-2258.