Once More with Feeling: Correlation ≠ Causation

Brian Resnick, writer and fellow at The Atlantic, has a fairly long and distinguished pedigree as an anti. In his latest piece, Gun Culture May Contribute to Suicide Rate in Rural America he demonstrates an outstanding grasp of logical fallacies. In this case, his entire piece is based around the post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this therefore because of this) fallacy. In his defense, Brian didn’t come up with this idea, he just takes it and runs with it like Usain Bolt after a couple of Red Bulls . . .

Rural Americans between the ages of 10 and 24 are twice as likely as their urban counterparts to commit suicide. And while youth suicides have declined across the country in recent years, suicide rates in sparsely populated areas have remained steady. While it is hard to pinpoint the reasons for this disparity — access to mental health treatments is a major contributor — one reason may be tied to gun culture.

At least Bri admits lack of mental health services is a “major contributor” to the problem. Unfortunately, access to the full study requires money and I’m a tightwad, but you can read an abstract here. But instead of the two items Brian mentions, the abstract states:

Analyses suggested that clinicians’ engagement with parents included 5 major elements: telling parents their child is at risk for suicide; responding to parents’ reactions; joining with parents; moving the parents towards concrete actions; and addressing rural gun culture.

Brian’s willingness to ignore other factors is endemic to most of the antis arguments; unless, of course, they are trying to discredit a pro-gun argument. For more than a decade now, Dr. John Lott has been doing highly detailed studies of guns and crime, taking into account police department staffing, policing methods, conviction rates, sentencing, drug prices and availability.

In all, he includes more than a dozen variables to show that more guns equal less crime. But the antis have dismissed these studies and the more than a dozen others like it as being “obviously flawed” and “failing to take into account” all the different variables which go into crime rates.

Now, I’m guessing that Resnick and his ilk are using “gun culture” as a code-word for “gun availability.” So having dismissed many excruciatingly detailed studies which show more guns mean less crime, somehow the simple correlation of gun culture/availability with higher suicide rates is sufficient for him to tout that availability as a causative. But is there contrary evidence out there? Indeed there is: GunPolicy.org provides us with some comparative information:

  • Japan has 0.6 firearms per 100 people
  • Russia has 8.9 firearms per 100 people
  • The United States has 88.8 firearms per 100 people

The U.S. suicide rate in 2008 was 11.96 per 100,000 people. GunPolicy has figures for Russia and Japan, but they are more than 10 years old. However a quick Google search on ‘japan suicide rate 2011’ yields this article which tells us that:

Japan has long battled a high suicide rate. At 24.4 suicides per 100,000 people, the country ranked second in 2009 among the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations after Russia’s 30.1, according to the World Health Organization.

So when you boil it all down, here’s what’s left in the bottom of the pot:

Country Guns per 100 Suicides per 100K
Japan 0.6 24.4
Russia 8.9 30.1
USA 88.8 11.96

Whaddaya know? There isn’t even any correlation between firearm access and suicide rates, much less causation.

But this simple OFWG research is by no means all that’s available, as Dr. Gary Kleck writes in his Targeting Guns: Firearms and their Control:

 

The full body of relevant studies indicates that firearm availability measures are significantly and positively associated with rates of firearm suicide, but have no significant association with rates of total suicide. Of eleven studies measuring an association between measures of gun availability and the total suicide rate, nine found no statistically significant positive association … one found a significant positive association … and one … obtained mixed results …

This pattern of results supports the view that where guns are less common, there is complete substitution of other methods of suicide, and that, while gun levels influence the choice of suicide method, they have no effect on the number of people who die in suicides.[1] [emphasis added]

These results are also fully in accord with the CDC’s First Reports Evaluating the Effectiveness of Strategies for Preventing Violence: Firearms Laws which states (in part):

Overall, evaluations of the effects of acquisition restrictions on violent outcomes have produced inconsistent findings … One study indicated a statistically significant reduction in the rate of suicide by firearms among persons aged >55 years; however, the reduction in suicide by all methods was not statistically significant.

Brian goes on with his explanation and analysis, but since his entire premise is completely incorrect I see no reason to waste more electrons debunking him any further.


[1] Targeting Guns, Gary Kleck (1997), pp. 49-50

comments

  1. avatar Curzen says:

    your best bet to counter anti gun articles when taking it international: statistics about Switzerland.

    1. avatar Wiebelhaus says:

      Why’s that? Please explain.

      1. avatar Curzen says:

        I guess in bullet-points the country would be called socialist, yet has one of the highest numbers for per capita gun ownership, partially due to national defense being based on a militia system which has any male citizen of a certain age take a full auto sig rifle home after basic training plus lax laws for obtaining other guns privately. oh and much ammo is subsidized by the government. They have very low rates for homicide and suicide by firearm. Personally I take from that: you can hand out guns like candy if you lessen social inequality and other related factors, making gun banning unnecessary as demonstrated by Switzerland.

        1. avatar CarlosT says:

          Also, you can have as many guns as you want in a country, with no increase in violence, as long as you have premium chocolate and watches.

          Wait, there’s that correlation/causation problem again. Dang.

      2. avatar CarlosT says:

        Because military age males are issued full automatic assault rifles (i.e. the real thing) which they carry around with them in daily life. After they are past their term, they are issued a semi-auto version to keep. Switzerland, however, has one of the lowest intentional homicide rates in the world. What this means is that the mere presence of guns doesn’t cause death and mayhem to erupt. It’s the people, and other factors, that make the difference.

  2. avatar Ralph says:

    Hey, I have an idea how Resnick can prove his thesis that guns cause suicide. Just give him a gun and hope for the best.

  3. avatar Greg Camp says:

    What does the rate of suicide correlate with? Choice. Sometimes a rational choice, many times a stupid one, but choice, nonetheless. The only way to eliminate suicide is to eliminate choice, but that wouldn’t be a world that I’d want to live in.

  4. avatar hoppes#9 says:

    Suicide is as much a ‘natural law’ right as any other – perhaps more so, if such were possible. It’s my life, and I will do with it as I will.

    1. avatar Bruce W. Krafft says:

      +1 my brother!

  5. avatar Wiebelhaus says:

    Good article, good info, this is the reason I visit this site, thanks.

  6. avatar gej88 says:

    Rural areas generally have higher suicide rates across the board, including UK and Japan. It’s not having the guns, it is living in the sticks.

  7. avatar flboots says:

    There they go again, blaming the gun. Its people that shoot other people, or themselves. The gun is a tool. From the guns I own i haven’t notice a brain in them. When people hang themselves I don’t see the rope being blamed. When are they going to get it right?

  8. avatar MDC43 says:

    I’d like to see one of these evidence-through-anecdote guys try to argue that, for instance, Hunter S. Thompson’s decision to take his own life was not the result of reasoned self-examination, but merely the effect of his easily accessible firearms…

  9. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    This issue has been studied extensively in the gun control debate of the 1990’s aaaaaannnnnd…. we find that firearm availability doesn’t do a thing to increase suicide rates. What it does among rural males in the US is increase the efficacy of their attempt to kill themselves. One of the most interesting statistical developments I remember reading in the 90’s was a survey of Japanese immigrants to the US. Since firearms ownership is rather rare in Japan, but suicide isn’t, it was thought that suicide rates among Japanese immigrants should go up with increased availability to guns, right? Wrong. It went down. The fastest way to decrease the rate at which Japanese people kill themselves is…. to remove them from Japan. Guns didn’t factor into the issue at all.

    He could have looked in the literature for the answer to the weighty question he was pondering and found the issue already examined in far greater mathematical detail than surveying a punch of “mental health clinicians.” I should NB here that there are very, very few “mental health professionals” that I have met who I would want to see turned loose with a pair of scissors, much less a firearm, so surveying these people is an utterly useless exercise.

  10. avatar Charlie says:

    What are the statistics on rural versus urban representation in the armed forces? Military suicides are at a pretty high rate now.

  11. avatar Aharon says:

    Someone needs to create a pro- Main Street, Moderate, Middle Class, Bill of Rights, (Not a pro- nanny or police state left/right) major media organization.

  12. avatar Mikeb302000 says:

    You know, Bruce, for a rather large man you can tip-toe around the studies and surveys like a cross between Tiny Tim and Nureyev.

    One blatant blunder in your pitch is to reference the Japanese suicide rate. In their culture suicide has never had the stigma it has in the US, on the contrary, it’s traditionally been seen as an honorable action. This little difference renders all comparisons bogus. But you knew that, you were just trying to pull a fast one and since you’ve got a 95% echo chamber here, no one would dare call you on it.

    Another blunder you made is one of omission. The absence of your referencing the intentional homicide rate US vs. UK is screamingly obvious and convenient. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about, but here it is just in case.

    http://mikeb302000.blogspot.it/2012/04/intentional-homicide-rate-whos-worse-uk.html

    1. avatar Curzen says:

      So what you are saying is that suicide rates are influenced mainly by social and cultural aspects rather than access to firearms?

      1. avatar Chewbacca Defense says:

        That’s what it sounds like to me. So mikeb supports Bruce’s overall point that suicide rates are not directly correlated to firearm ownership. If they were so closely related then Japan’s social and cultural aspects would be irrelevant.

        1. avatar Dan says:

          Which probably means that homicide rates might be influenced by cultural aspects as well.

    2. avatar GS650G says:

      How long were you in Japan , Mike? Beyond seeing Japan in movies do you have any clue about the “honor” of suicide or are you just recycling worn out assumptions as fact again?

    3. avatar Chas says:

      Suicide is suicide. Matters not how it’s regarded by society.

      You lose.

    4. avatar Levi B says:

      But you just said you can’t compare statistics between countries unless they support my argument, mikeb. Oh wait, that was your argument. Nevermind.

    5. avatar Parthenon says:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FDSdg09df8

      Modern Japanese no longer sees suicide as an honorable act. It is seen as a desperate act of someone who cannot deal with society.

      Did it not occur to you that a culture can change in the course of 70 years?

      1. avatar mikeb302000 says:

        That’s flimsy man. Of course a culture can change, and of course young Japanese would report it that way, but these cultural things run deep. Look at our own.

        1. avatar Jake says:

          “Our”? Whose might that be, Bloomie? ‘Murrka? Not “our” anything then, you being on the other side of the planet. Even so, this country is not a monoculture, anybody implying such other than in jest has obviously never been here.

    6. avatar Dan says:

      Mike, since I’m not going to register on your site to comment there, in the comments of that post, you keep saying “the UK is not more violent than the US” then, when it’s pointed out that the UK’s overall violent crime rate is *significantly* higher than that of the US, you point and say “but the murder rate is lower.”

      Not all violence is murder. The UK is more violent (i.e. has a higher rate of violent crime than the US).

      1. avatar mikeb302000 says:

        Surely you’ve seen that nonsense debunked. It goes something like this: what counts as a “violent crime” in the UK is not the same as in the US. You end up comparing two dissimilar things. That’s why I like the mother of all violent crimes, intentional homicide. IT’S 4 TIMES HIGHER IN THE US.

        1. avatar Jake says:

          Correlation does not equal causation, Bloomie.

  13. avatar Philthegardner says:

    As the first one here after Mikey, may I implore the others to please please please refrain from feeding the trolls…

  14. avatar Gophernator says:

    More anecdotal evidence: two years ago, two of my friends committed suicide. This is in Montana, where 60% of households own more than one gun. Both had guns readily accessible. One chose to take pills, the other closed his garage door and started his Jeep.

  15. avatar Lt Dave says:

    The ownership of guns may contribute to suicide – of anit-gunners who can’t stand self sufficiency.

  16. avatar mikeb302000 says:

    You mean “moran,” Ralph.

    It’s crackling wit like that I’m gonna miss most over the next month. My farewell tribute is here if you’re interested.

    http://www.mikeb302000.blogspot.it/2012/06/blog-break-one-month.html

    I have to go pack now.

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