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More Blacks are buying guns. Is that driving up Black suicide rates?


Gun buying among African Americans has soared recently, as have suicide rates among young Black men. Experts believe the two are linked. Alex Smith of KCUR reports. And we should warn you the sound of gunshots at a gun range will be heard in this story.

ALEX SMITH, BYLINE: When Reba Rice-Portwood was growing up in St. Louis in the '70s and '80s, suicide was seen as a problem outside of her own African American community.

REBA RICE-PORTWOOD: When someone would die by suicide and if we heard about it on television or if we read about it, we would always assume that it was Caucasian.

SMITH: That changed a few years ago when her son Ricky died. Reba says Ricky had an old soul - he loved Sam Cooke and looked out for older people in his apartment complex. But Reba said her son was also tormented by depression. One day in 2014, Reba got a frantic call from her son's fiancee, who told her that Ricky had shot himself. Ricky died at a hospital. He was only 22.

RICE-PORTWOOD: I'm like, what did I do so bad in this life for God to allow my son to pass?

SMITH: Reba also strained to understand how her son, who was known to struggle with mental health, managed to get a gun. Since 2012, suicides among young Black men have increased by nearly 50%, and experts warn that increasing gun ownership among African Americans is playing a role in that. As recently as 2015, just 14% of Black adults owned a gun. By 2021, just six years later, 25% of Blacks owned a gun. Self-defense has long been a main reason for buying guns, but many Black owners say that for them, this is a particularly thorny issue. At Sharpshooter Range in south Saint Louis, Sharis Lewis practices with her new handgun.


SMITH: Lewis, who's Black, says she's concerned about crime where she lives. St. Louis had the highest big-city homicide rate in the U.S. in 2020, according to FBI data. She started carrying a firearm because she doesn't feel comfortable calling police for protection.

SHARIS LEWIS: Some people rely on law enforcement, which for African Americans that's not always the safest course of action. So I would rather control the situation.

SMITH: A new study estimates that since 2019, more than 5 million Americans bought a gun for the first time. Of these new gun owners, 21% were Black. Having a gun in the home increases suicide risk by two to five times. Harvard researcher Deb Azrael says it's time to update assumptions about who may be in danger.

DEB AZRAEL: Gun ownership is more diverse now, and so when we talk to people about the risks of guns, we want to make sure that we're actually reaching out across the board.

SMITH: In the days following her son's death, Reba Rice-Portwood grappled with grief. And then came surprising news - Ricky's fiancee discovered she was pregnant.

JACKSON: If somebody want to teach me how to do multiply, I already know.

SMITH: These days, Reba works as a mental health counselor and is raising her grandson, Jackson, who's 6 years old. On a Saturday morning at her apartment, he shows off his multiplication skills on a tablet. Despite what happened to her son, Reba still keeps a pistol in a safe at home. She says she's held onto it for one big reason.

RICE-PORTWOOD: Fear. Like, actually, I went to the grocery store, you know, and was almost carjacked. And that's the reason why I still have it now.

SMITH: While she's haunted by gun violence, Reba says the accumulation of firearms in her community seems increasingly impossible even for her to avoid.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Smith in St. Louis.

INSKEEP: This story comes from NPR's partnership with KCUR and Kaiser Health News. And we should let you know that if you or somebody you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alex Smith began working in radio as an intern at the National Association of Farm Broadcasters. A few years and a couple of radio jobs later, he became the assistant producer of KCUR's magazine show, KC Currents. In January 2014 he became KCUR's health reporter.