Americans believe that most firearm fatalities are due to homicides, and not suicides. Medical records, however, suggest that the opposite is true, with twice as many people dying from suicide than from homicides. This significant gap in the public’s perception and reality could potentially be dangerous due to improper use and storage of firearms.
To understand the American public’s perception of the leading causes of violent death in the nation, researchers at the University of Washington, Northeastern University, and Harvard University analyzed data from the 2015 National Firearms Survey, a web-based survey of nearly 4,000 U.S. adults.
Respondents were asked to rank the causes of death in their state over the past year. These responses were then compared to the state’s official death count.
“This research indicates that in the scope of violent death, the majority of U.S. adults don’t know how people are dying,” Erin Morgan, lead author and doctoral student at the University of Washington, said in a statement. “Knowing that the presence of a firearm increases the risk for suicide, and that firearm suicide is substantially more common than firearm homicide, may lead people to think twice about whether or not firearm ownership and their storage practices are really the safest options for them and their household.”
The inconsistency between the actual data and the public’s perception suggests that some people may be at risk. The perception that homicides are far more prevalent than they actually are — perhaps fueled by disproportionate mediate reports — may motivate some individuals to purchase firearms for protection. But having a firearm in the house may actually lead to more trouble due to the increased risk of deliberate or accidental suicide.
Morgan and colleagues argue that the gap in the American public’s perception of violent death needs to be addressed through education.
However, not just any media coverage will do. A meta-analysis performed by researchers at Wayne State University, Michigan, found that “studies measuring the effect of either an entertainment or political celebrity suicide story were 14.3 times more likely to find a copycat effect than studies that did not.”
Keeping a gun locked, keeping it unloaded, storing ammunition locked, and storing it in a separate location have each been found to be associated with a protective effect
“We know that this is a mixture of mass and individual communication, but what really leads people to draw the conclusions that they do?” Morgan said. “If people think that the rate of homicide is really high because that’s what is shown on the news and on fictional TV shows, then these are opportunities to start to portray a more realistic picture of what’s happening.”
The findings were reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine.