MONDAY, Sept. 27, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Suicides with guns have outpaced gun homicides in the last decade and now account for more than half of all the firearm deaths in the United States.
And the rate of gun suicides is higher in rural areas, while homicides are the most common form of gun death in cities.
Those findings are contained in a University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine study that appears in the October issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
Yet these trends have escaped attention, particularly in rural areas, said Charles Branas, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the study.
"There is a perception that gun problems are in the cities, and that the areas outside of cities are not touched by gun death. But the truth is that the risk of being shot to death is the same in rural areas," Branas said.
He cited a 1994 U.S. News and World Report survey that found that 64 percent of urban residents said guns were a serious problem in their communities, while only 27 percent of rural residents thought guns were a problem where they lived.
That gun deaths in rural areas are due predominantly to suicide is something rural governments need to address, Branas said.
Branas and his colleagues analyzed more than 580,000 death certificates from 1989 to 1999 in all the counties in the United States, to study the urban-rural differences in intentional firearm deaths -- both homicides and suicides.
After accounting for differences in income, education, and employment rates, the researchers found that most rural counties -- those with a population of 2,500 or less -- had a rate of gun suicides more than 1.5 times those of urban counties. But cities experienced almost twice the gun homicide rate of most rural counties, Branas said.
The trend applied only to guns. Other forms of homicide (such as stabbings or beatings) or suicide (like hangings or overdoses) were pretty much the same in both urban and rural areas, Branas said.
"This is truly about the guns," he said.
One possible explanation for the high rate of gun suicides in rural areas is that rural residents own more guns, Branas said. "Rural gun ownership far exceeds gun ownership in urban areas," he said.
But, he added, not enough is being done to screen gun owners who might have psychological problems.
Since the 1990s, laws aimed at reducing homicides with guns have led to an approximately 5 percent decrease in such killings. But while there are laws that call for restricting access to guns for people with a mental illness, they haven't been enforced in the same way as laws designed to limit gun access to those with a criminal history, Branas said.
As a result, suicide by guns has increased by about 1 to 2 percent a year, mostly in rural areas, Branas said.
"Rural governments think that these problems are not a part of their community, and don't support intervention," he said, such as restricting access to firearms for people with mental illness.
For more information about suicide, visit the American Assocation of Suicidology.