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Study: Gun suicides hit rural U.S. harder

People living in small towns are statistically as likely to die from gunfire as those in urban areas, according to a new study, but the shots are much more likely to be self-inflicted in rural areas.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, looking at all deaths from firearms over a 10-year period in the United States, found that the risk of being murdered with a gun in large cities and the risk of suicide by gun in rural areas was almost identical.

"The difference is who does the shooting," said Charles Branas, an associate professor of epidemiology and lead author of the report. It was published Monday in the October issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

The researchers analyzed the urban-rural differences among intentional gun deaths _ homicides and suicides _ using data from more than 580,000 death certificates filed in all U.S. counties between 1989 and 1999.

After adjusting for income, education, employment rates and other factors, most rural counties had more than 1.5 times the rate of gun suicides compared to most urban counties. At the same time, urban areas experienced almost twice the gun-murder rate of small towns or rural areas. Similar trends were not found for other, nongun instruments in either homicides or suicides.

"We didn't directly account for differences in availability of guns by location, but we can speculate how that might have affected our results," Branas said, since a larger percentage of gun owners reside in rural areas.

"A major take-home message from these findings is that although prevention efforts must be continued in big cities, dispelling the urban myth that gun death does not touch areas outside the big cities should be a high priority."

Branas noted that over the past decade, gun suicides have outpaced gun murders, accounting for more than half of all U.S. firearm deaths. While gun murders declined by about 5 percent a year during much of the 1990s, due to a variety of legal and demographic factors, gun suicides increased by 1 percent to 2 percent a year during the same period, most starkly in rural areas.