Why New York has such a low rate of gun death

The non-violence sculpture at the U.N. headquarters in New York City.
The non-violence sculpture at the U.N. headquarters in New York City.
Marco Rubino/Shutterstock
The non-violence sculpture at the U.N. headquarters in New York City.

Why New York has such a low rate of gun death

New York’s famously tough gun laws play a role in curbing both homicides and suicides, but there are other factors at play.
January 19, 2020

New York state’s death rate from guns is a lot lower than you might think from watching “Law & Order” or gangster movies. Pop culture would have you believe that the Gowanus Canal’s main pollutant is decaying corpses, while local news and opportunistic politicians can make it seem like violent crime is omnipresent. 

And yet, New York is tied with Massachusetts for the second-lowest rate of gun-related deaths in the nation at 3.7 deaths per 100,000 people, a statistic that includes suicides, homicides, accidents, and people shot to death by police officers. Only Hawaii’s rate is lower.

Why does New York have such a comparatively low rate of death by gun? Conditions in New York City play an outsized role, because so much of the state’s population lives there, so one factor is the overall decline in crime in New York City, which has rendered New York the safest large city in the United States. New York City went from 2,262 murders in 1990 to a historic low of 292 murders in 2017. And while the murder numbers have crept up slightly since then, New York remains one of the safest large cities in the country. 

But most gun deaths are suicides, meaning crime rates alone cannot provide a full explanation – nor are crime rates in some of New York’s smaller cities such as Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Binghamton especially low compared to their counterparts. 

So what else is at play? What is New York doing right that it should keep doing, or do more? 

New York’s famously tough gun laws play a role in curbing both homicides and suicides. The Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act became law in 2013, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, and New York tightened its gun laws again in 2019. In addition to the famous limits on assault weapons, the SAFE Act banned handguns for convicted felons and people deemed dangerous to themselves or others due to mental illness. The SAFE Act also imposed a background check on people applying to own private handguns. The 2019 overhaul empowered courts to temporarily seize the guns of people who are deemed dangerous to themselves or others. 

The lives saved by these gun control measures may not be the ones you’d think. New York’s low rate of gun death has a lot to do with its low suicide rate. Nationwide, of the 39,773 total gun deaths in the United States in 2017, 60% of gun deaths were suicides and 37% were homicides. Three-quarters of murders and 51% of all suicides involved a gun. 

Despite their collective reputation as neurotics and depressives, New York has the lowest suicide rate of any state, 8.1/100,000. Montana has the highest at 28.9/100,000

Due to the prevalence of suicide in rural America, a few states manage to have much higher overall rates of gun death than New York, despite lower overall crime rates. Idaho’s firearm death rate of 16.4/100,000 is more than four times New York’s. 

Suicide is a major public health problem both nationwide and in New York, and easy access to guns is correlated to higher rates of suicide. The 20 states with the highest suicide rates, including Wyoming, Alaska, and Montana, also have some of the loosest gun laws, according to Dr. Carolina Vélez-Grau, a professor at the Silver School of Social Work at New York University who studies suicide. “One of the things that I believe is important is that New York has very strict rules in terms of access to guns,” said Vélez-Grau. 

Guns are a very effective tool of self-destruction, 85% of suicide attempts with a gun end in death, compared to just 3% of suicide attempts with drugs. 

New York has the third-lowest gun ownership rate of any state, after Delaware and Rhode Island: 10.3% of New Yorkers own guns. The variation by state and region is enormous: The top two states for gun ownership are Alaska and Arkansas with 61.7% and 57.9%, respectively. Overall, the Northeast has the lowest gun ownership rate of any region, at about 16%, while the South has the highest, around 36%. 

The national suicide rate has increased by 33% since 1999. Rural areas have long had higher suicide rates than cities, but the gap is widening rapidly. The suicide rate for urban communities rose by 16% between 1999 and 2017, while the rate for rural communities rose by 53%

Youth suicide is also on an alarming upswing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the suicide rate for Americans aged 10 to 24 rose from 6.8/100,000 in 2007 to 10.6/100,000 in 2017, a 56% percent increase. Youth suicide is strongly correlated with household gun ownership. 

The social causes of higher suicide rates are complex, including untreated mental illness, unemployment and social isolation. Stigma about mental illness and mental health care makes matters worse. 

Economic insecurity also plays a role. A recent study suggested that raising the minimum wage might decrease suicide rates. 

Poverty and lack of opportunity increase suicide risk everywhere, but the correlation between economic deprivation and suicide is stronger in rural counties, according to a recent nationwide study.

These factors may help explain why suicide rates vary dramatically across New York with from a low of 4.8/100,000 in Brooklyn to a high of 28/100,000 in tiny, rural Hamilton County. The firearm suicide rate is 3.36 times higher in the rest of New York state than it is in New York City. 

Vélez-Grau posits that rural New York has a higher suicide rate because there is less economic opportunity and more social isolation in these communities. Rural New Yorkers also have less access to mental and behavioral health care than city-dwellers. 

Research shows that suicide tends to be an impulsive act: 24% of survivors of nearly lethal suicide attempts reported that less than 5 minutes elapsed between deciding to end their lives and acting on that decision. An additional 47% of survivors in that study said they deliberated between 5 minutes and an hour. 

Not having a very lethal method at hand during those moments of crisis can mean the difference between life and death. Deprived of a gun, people may resort to a less lethal means – one they are much more likely to surive – or they may not attempt suicide at all. 

You might think that people who are determined to take their own lives would simply pick another equally lethal method, but that’s not always true. Restricting common, highly lethal methods of suicide can reduce the overall suicide rate, not just suicides by that specific means. 

Removing carbon monoxide from kitchen gas in 1958 reduced the overall national suicide rate in the UK for several years, not just the rate of suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. Tighter regulations on lethal pesticides dramatically reduced the national suicide rate of Sri Lanka, and not just the suicide rate by pesticide.

Vélez-Grau says there’s still a lot to be done to get New York’s suicide rate even lower. The needs of Latino and immigrant populations are often overlooked in our suicide prevention efforts. The rate of completed suicide is still slightly higher for white female teens, but nevertheless, suicide is the second leading cause of death amongst Latina adolescents in New York. Nationwide, Latina teens are more likely to attempt suicide than their black or white peers. Vélez-Grau says that Latino people whose families have been in the U.S. for a long time are at higher risk than recent immigrants. She believes that this has something to do with the erosion of the protective influence of family and community that tends to reduce the risk for more recent immigrants. 

New York City’s racial diversity and high population of recent immigrants probably contribute to its low suicide rate. New York state is 64% white, but New York City is only 43% white. Nationwide, white men account for nearly 70% of deaths by suicide, in part because they are more likely to attempt suicide with guns. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced his desire to toughen New York’s gun laws even further by preventing people who have been convicted of serious crimes in other states from buying guns in New York. This is a reasonable proposal, but even greater public health gains could be realized by increasing investment in our mental health infrastructure. 

Even as youth suicide rates climb, New York slashed reimbursement rates for Medicaid-eligible children and families who receive mental health care through Children and Family Treatment and Support Services. Even before the cuts, fewer than half of children in need of behavioral health care were actually getting it, and now that the rates have been cut, some providers will be forced to stop offering services. Restoring the reimbursement rates would be a meaningful step towards the long term psychological well-being of young people and an important investment in suicide prevention. 

Lindsay Beyerstein
is an investigative journalist, podcaster and documentary filmmaker in Brooklyn.
20200219