Anti-gun proponents argue that eliminating (or dramatically restricting access to) guns would have a significant effect on the overall number of gun deaths. Since suicides represent nearly two thirds of all firearm-related deaths, it stands to reason, they say, that suicides by gun would drop precipitously. The real question is whether the elimination of guns would actually reduce the overall number of suicides or just result in fewer suicides by firearm. Since it’s impossible to answer that question definitively without actually going through the exercise, we can make an educated guess as to what would happen if (more) radical restrictions on gun ownership became a reality . . .
Hypothetically, if access to guns was eliminated or severely restricted, I think that we can all agree that the number of suicides performed with a gun would drop. But does that really matter? Before you accuse me of being a heartless bastard, let me clarify. I think that most of us can agree that suicide as a concept is distasteful. From my perspective, I am interested in solutions that reduce the total number of suicides, not those that just prevent one method. The question then is, “If we restrict access to guns, do we reduce the TOTAL number of suicides or simply change the mix of methods?” Do people still kill themselves off at the same rate, but do it without a gun? A solution that changes the mix without affecting the overall rate is not particularly useful.
What’s interesting is that the academic literature that I have been able to find relating the accessibility of guns to the gun suicide rate almost always seems to focus only on the Unites States. I can find studies that compare suicide rates between regions and states, but there is less material out there that looks at the U.S. compared to other countries.
One such example is the Harvard School of Public Health’s list of works on Firearms suicide. The studies cited on this page all focus exclusively on the U.S. and generally conclude that states that have higher gun availability have higher rates of gun suicides. As I stated before, this conclusion is not surprising. After all, guns are good tool for suicide and if they are more accessible in some regions, then they are going to be used more frequently for suicide. It’s kind of like proving that water is wet.
What is far more interesting is that many of the studies cited on the School of Public Health’s page looked at overall suicide rates in addition to gun suicide rates. Those states that had easier access to guns also have higher overall suicide rates than states or regions with less access to guns. This is a very interesting distinction that seems to get glossed over. Going back to the logic course I took back in High School (Catholic education and all that), this collection of observations leads to two conclusions:
- Easier access to guns results in higher firearm suicide rates
- States that have higher overall suicide rates also have higher firearm suicide rates
Someone who does not understand logic (or common sense) might suggest a third conclusion:
- Easier access to guns results in higher overall suicide rates
I’ll allow for the possibility that some Brady Bunch member or Mother Against Intelligent Discourse (MAID) who is feeling depressed with the Colorado recall election results and is bummed by how easy a gun is to get might off themselves in protest, but for most people, simply living in a state that respects gun rights is not likely to increase their overall chances of suicide. In fact, since many of the studies cited on the School of Public Health’s page found that that gun suicide and overall suicide rates were positively correlated, one might conclude that the suicide problem lies someplace other than with easy gun availability. Something is causing people in these states to commit suicide at a higher rate than in other places and we should focus on those issues rather than simply blaming guns which it would appear to be merely facilitators rather than the cause.
Now, I’m certainly willing to accept a causal relationship between greater gun access and greater gun suicide rates. After all, guns are highly effective for that purpose and if they are more widely available, they are going to be more widely used. However, I am not willing to accept a causal relationship between gun availability and higher rates of non-gun suicide. The mere presence of guns is not going to make people more likely to commit non-gun suicide. So, this additional variable begs a question – if the same place has higher gun availability and higher overall suicide rates, is it possible that the relationship between guns and suicide is merely one of correlation rather than causation? If that is the case, then restricting access to guns might not in fact have any real impact on the overall suicide rate.
The biggest question that is not answered by many of these studies is whether the suicide rate in the U.S. as a whole is greater, equal to, or less than the suicide rate in other developed countries. The U.S. currently has an annual suicide rate in the of 12 suicide victims per 100,000 people. Some people might argue this number is too high, others amazed at how low it is. Before we start down this road, one thing worth keeping in mind is that since most of the countries that will be used for comparison have strict gun laws, I concede that the rate of suicide by firearm in these countries will be much lower than in the U.S. That said; remember that I am concerned with the overall suicide rate, not one specific method. I don’t want people killing themselves, period. A low firearms-related suicide rate is irrelevant if the overall suicide rate is high.
We begin with World Health Organization data as referenced by the Wikipedia Article on Suicide Rates. There is some controversy surrounding this list – mainly there are claims that it may underreport the actual suicide in countries that have poor recordkeeping systems, but for our purposes- comparing the U.S. suicide rate to other modern, industrialized nations, it will suffice.
The first thing that we notice from this listing is that the Eastern European and Asian countries tend to place higher on the list. Many of the countries near the top including China, Japan, and Russia have very strict gun laws, so guns are clearly not a contributing factor in these countries. While one might take solace in the fact that Japan’s suicide rate of 21.7 per 100,000 is nearly double the United States’ rate of 12.0 per 100,000, one must consider the sociological differences between the two countries. While Japan is very similar to the U.S. in terms of economics and industrialization, its culture and religion are very different. Furthermore, the level of stress felt by the average worker is much higher in Japan than it is in the United States so a high suicide rate is unsurprising. For this reason, Japan makes a poor candidate for comparison.
Western European nations, Canada, and Australia have cultures and belief systems closer to America’s. With this in mind, let’s compare the suicide rates of several of these nations to our own.
- Belgium 17 per 100,000
- France 14.7 per 100,000
- Austria 12.9 per 100,000
- United States 12.0 per 100,000
- UK 11.8 per 100,000
- Canada 11.5 per 100,000
- Australia 9.7 per 100,000
America’s suicide rate falls smack in the middle of the pack. Australia’s rate is lower while Belgium and France have higher rates. Note that while every country on this list with the exception of the U.S. have strong prohibitions against personal firearms ownership, it does not seem to have made a difference in terms of overall suicide rates.
So, what conclusions can be drawn from this data? The obvious one is that assuming America is not all that different culturally than Western Europe, Canada, or Australia, we should not expect the elimination of guns to have that much of an effect on the overall suicide rate. Yes, elimination or restriction of guns would certainly have a positive effect on the number of gun-related suicides, but in the end, the method a loved one uses to commit suicide is far less important to me than is the fact that he or she committed suicide in the first place.
In the end, the theory that the restriction or elimination of guns would have a positive effect on the overall suicide rate in the U.S. does not hold up under scrutiny. Like so many other initiatives advanced by gun control proponents, it is clearly a straw man argument and should be dismissed with the contempt it deserves.