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Gun suicides up, murders down in US cities, CDC finds

Crime scene tape is wrapped around a power pole near the location where a 20-year-old man died from a gunshot wound to the head and a 15-year-old boy was shot and wounded during weekend violence on May 13, 2013 in Chicago
Crime scene tape is wrapped around a power pole near the location where a 20-year-old man died from a gunshot wound to the head and a 15-year-old boy was shot and wounded during weekend violence on May 13, 2013 in Chicago.Scott Olson / Getty Images

The rate of suicide using guns has gone up in most of the 50 most populous U.S. metropolitan areas, but the murder rate has fallen, according to new statistics released Thursday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is reasserting its right to study and report on gun deaths, says the economy is a clear factor in the rise in suicides, as is access to guns.

Thursday’s report focuses on big metropolitan areas and on youths aged 10 to 19.

The CDC team found that more than 22,000 people were killed using guns in 2009 and 2010. That compares to 25,406 firearm murders in 2006 and 2007. “The good news is that we saw that firearm homicides had declined over the two-year period we examined,” said James Mercy of the CDC’s division of violence prevention. That reflects a 20-year trend for murders, he told NBC News.

But killings are still high among youths. The second leading cause of deaths among teenagers was homicide, and 83 percent of these killings involved a gun.

New Orleans has by far the highest per capita rate of homicides using guns-- 23.2 murders per 100,000 people in 2006-2007 and 19 per 100,000 in 2009-2010. Other cities with high murder rates include Memphis, with a rate of 11.4 in 2006 and 9.4 in 2010; Birmingham, Ala., with a rate of 11 in 2006-2007 and 8.4 in 2009-2010 and Baltimore, with a murder rate of 10.3 in 2006-2007 and 7.7 in 2009-2010.

New York’s homicide rate was 3.2 per 100,000 in 2006-2007 and 2.8 per 100,000 in 2009-2010. The rate in Portland, Ore., was 1.4 per 100,000 in both time periods.

Suicides, on the other hand, went up. “Firearm suicides increased in the majority of (metropolitan) areas during this time period,” Mercy said. The report found 38,122 suicides involving firearms in 2009-2010, up from 34,232 in 2006-2007.

“There are any number of factors that contribute to suicide,” Mercy said. “But one factor that may be associated is the business cycle. Suicide rates have increased since 2006, and that’s associated with the recession and unemployment in the United States.”

But access to guns also plays a role, Mercy and his colleague Scott Kegler report in the CDC’s weekly report on death, illness and disease. “A factor likely affecting firearm homicide and suicide is access to firearms by persons at risk for harming themselves or others,” they wrote.

In May, CDC reported that suicide rates were rising among middle-aged Americans, as well.

Mercy said it’s important to look at guns specifically as they are used in the vast majority of murders and suicides. “Our role and goal is to get out the best information on these issues so that citizens and policymakers can be fully informed when they are talking about these critical public health problems,” he said.

From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, the CDC conducted original, peer-reviewed research into gun violence, including questions such as whether people who had guns in their homes gained protection from the weapons.

But in 1996, the Congress -- pressed hard by the National Rifle Association -- worked to block medical research on gun violence, saying it wasn’t a public health issue. An amendment to an appropriations bill cut $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget, exactly the amount the agency’s injury prevention center had previously spent on gun research.

After several highly publicized and traumatic mass shootings, including in Aurora, Colo., in July and Newtown, Conn., in December of last year, President Barack Obama issued 23 executive orders directing federal agencies to find out more about gun violence.

It’s not a simple matter of guns equal murder and suicides, Mercy and Kegler write. The illegal drug trade, changes in demographics, how police respond to gun violence and the economy are all important, they say.

And there are approaches that have been shown to help decrease violence, Mercy says. “One strategy for reducing firearm homicide is to reduce the underlying violence that is occurring,” he said.

“We have done a lot in understanding what works with youth violence,” he added. “(One is) improving social and emotional skills through school-based programs that help kids act in pro-social ways and also resolving conflicts.” 

Other programs that help promote proper adult supervision of children helps, as well as programs that give kids hope by providing economic opportunities.