The rate of suicide by gun among black male teenagers nearly quadrupled from 1979 to 1994 before falling off somewhat in the late 1990s, according to a study.
The rate among white male teenagers climbed by more than a third during the period before dropping back some.
Traditionally, blacks have had much lower suicide rates than whites, but the availability of guns may help account for the narrowing of the gap among young men, researchers said.
"One of the factors is the easy availability of firearms, especially when suicide is _ quote _ impulsive behavior," said former Surgeon General David Satcher, now a visiting fellow with the Kaiser Family Foundation. He was not involved with the study.
The study, which uses data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that suicide by gun among 15- to 19-year-old black males rose from 3.6 per 100,000 in 1979 to a peak of 13.9 per 100,000 in 1994. The rate for 1997, the most recent year studied, was down to 8.4 per 100,000.
Guns were used in 54 percent of all black suicides in that age group in 1979 and in 74 percent by 1997.
For whites in the same age group, the gun-related suicide rate was 9.7 per 100,000 in 1979, peaked at 13.6 per 100,000 in 1991 and dropped to 10.4 per 100,000 in 1997. Guns were used in 68 percent of all 1979 suicides in the age group and in 65 percent in 1997.
The study appears this month in Psychiatric Services, a journal of the American Psychiatric Association. The figures show similar but less dramatic increases among 20- to 24-year-old black men.
The study did not look at causes for the suicide rates. But co-author Sean Joe, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Pennsylvania, speculated that young blacks feel more pressure to succeed than older generations, who could point to segregation or other obstacles.
"There's a greater expectation within the African-American community that younger African-Americans should be able to do more with the opportunities in front of them," Joe said.
Donna Holland Barnes lost her 20-year-old son, Marc, to suicide when he drove his vehicle into a river in 1990. She later founded the National Organization of People of Color Against Suicide.
"The problem with firearms is the impulsivity," said Barnes, a sociology professor at Southwest Texas State University. "Not a lot of thought goes into it."