gun suicide study comparison
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By Jim Barrett

[ED: We published this post back in 2013. The more things change, the more they stay the same. There’s been much written lately about the suicide rates in various states, depending on their relative firearms friendliness. The obvious implication is that, if only we had tougher gun laws, we’d have fewer suicides. As Jim demonstrated six years ago, that just ain’t so.]

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 it’s fair to assume that the number of suicides performed with using 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 just those accomplished using 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? Will people still kill themselves at the same rate, but do it without a gun? A solution that changes the mix without affecting the overall rate isn’t 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 isn’t surprising. After all, guns are good tools 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 Harvard 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 an interesting distinction that seems to get glossed over. Utilizing the logic course I took back in high school (Catholic education and all that), this collection of observations leads to two conclusions:

1) Easier access to guns results in higher firearm suicide rates

2) States that have higher overall suicide rates also have higher firearm suicide rates

Someone who doesn’t understand logic (or common sense) might suggest a third conclusion:

3) Easier access to guns results in higher overall suicide rates

I’ll allow for the possibility that some Brady Bunch or Mothers Against Intelligent Discourse (MAID) members may argue otherwise, but simply living in a state that respects gun rights is not likely to increase a person’s overall likelihood of committing suicide. In fact, since many of the studies cited on the Harvard School of Public Health’s page found that gun suicide and overall suicide rates were positively correlated, one might conclude that the origin of 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 are merely facilitators rather than the cause.

The biggest question that isn’t 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 rates in other developed countries. The U.S. currently has an annual suicide rate in the of 12 suicide per 100,000 people. Some people might argue this number is too high. Others will be amazed by 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’m 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 under report the actual suicide in countries that have poor record keeping 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 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 much closer to that of America. 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. has stronger prohibitions against personal firearms ownership, it doesn’t seem to have made a difference in terms of overall suicide rates.

What conclusion can be drawn from this data? The obvious one is that assuming America isn’t significantly different culturally than Western Europe, Canada, or Australia, we should not expect tougher gun control laws (or their elimination) to have that much of an effect on the overall suicide rate.

Yes, restriction or elimination of civilian-owned guns would certainly have a positive effect on the number of gun-related suicides, in the end, the method a loved one uses to commit suicide is far less important 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. doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Like so many other initiatives advanced by gun control proponents, it’s clearly a straw man argument and should be dismissed with all the contempt it deserves.

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    • Fewer prescriptions for S.S.R.I. drugs like Prozac , Paxil , Chantix , ect will go a long way to cutting down suicide rates. —– Seratonin increase also causes EXTREME VIOLENCE in some people.

      Dont take my word for it , see SSRI Stories.

      • Yeah… SSRIs are a useful pharmacological tool, but are grossly overprescribed. The bigger problem is that it doesn’t deal with larger underlying problems by providing a short-term, abusable, chemical solution. There are absolutely cases where SSRIs can save lives. However, doctors prescribing mind-altering drugs to patients who don’t know the real impact of those drugs or to children whose parents are too stupid to consider the full implications are a major problem.

        • SSRIs have never helped me with my depression or anything. All it does is mess up my sleep cycle and make fun-time with the gf last 10 hours. I’ve been on several SSRIs, and they made me feel like crap all day, sick to my stomach, made it difficult to get to sleep at all, and then I wake up at dawn still feeling like crap…

      • I’m hesitant to respond, since I know Pg2 will crawl out of the sewer and spout crap, but I have plenty of patients who had anxiety or depression and who did therapy and needed to go on a SSRI (usually Zoloft) and did great and are no longer suicidal as long as they are on their meds. We usually recommend therapy first and that they continue therapy forever (basically) but the meds do play a positive part in helping patients get better. Now the docs who just throw meds on people without doing therapy are doing a disservice, but don’t throw the medication class out the window just because they are practicing bad medicine.

        And just as a disclaimer, nothing in this post discussed any type of immunotherapy that gives children long term immunity to some diseases without causing detrimental developmental issues… so if someone does attack me for that type of subject… all I can say is “troll”.

        • liljoe. I applaud your response but unfortunately there are a number of ttagers that spout misinformation and have no clue how medicine works or mental healthcare for that matter. They just tow the line of the ignorant and live in their own world. Exactly as the libdems do when they try and speak of guns and the 2A.

        • ‘liljoe: Thanks for the insight, I always appreciate an expert’s opinion on a topic. Can I ask a follow up?

          Many people are blaming antidepressants for being a contributing factor for many of the mass murderers in recent history. Many have had a history of mental health issues, so their medication history seems to be a consequence of their treatment, versus a direct cause. In cases like Newtown or MSD, there seems to be willful neglect to the issues the murderers were having before their attacks.

          My question is: what can be done with people like that? If their families (or the police, etc.) were to step up and say something, what kind of treatment could actually be effective? Do we bring back the asylums? Or…?

        • I’m no expert, but my personal opinion/experience is that we don’t have enough inpatient units for mental health (not necessarily a psych hospitals) and too many cases get discharged early to make place for the next patient. This has happened recently to my uncle and it sucks, for family as well as for the patient.

          There is no solution, evil exists and will happen, suicide exists and will happen. But we are failing those that have mental health issues and have been for years.

      • Sorry if I miss some nuance, but by looking at the graphs real quick the answer from this paper is: No, they find another way to kill themselves. Correct?

        • True! Primary rite of passage is obtaining a car… If you are intent on suicide, just running a hose from the exhaust into the passenger area of the car is easy. Also, cars facilitate travel to areas where they could jump off a cliff or bridge, or engage in risky ocean surf swimming or overexposure in the winter that would lead to hypothermia. Teen suicide by firearm should Not be considered because firearm ownership is already restricted by age.

  1. I often see the anti-gun left cite Japan as their “perfect” example of gun control and how well it works. The gun grabbers are fast to point out how few Japanese commit suicide with firearms. But they neglect to include the TOTAL numbers of Japanese who do commit suicide. Japan has a notably higher overall suicide rate than the USA.

    • One would get the impression that the antis believe in an afterlife and coming to death by means of firearm would exclude one from enjoying that afterlife. Any other means however will earn you a place in the crystal palace or whatever they think it is.

  2. I agree with the author. Based upon my personal experience I know that if someone wants to kill themselves…they WILL find a way. Taking guns out of the equation will not change the overall suicide rate one bit. All that will change are the methods by which people choose to die.

  3. But..but…but…

    If it will save just *one* life it will be worth it!

    (Channeling my inner ‘Sam I Am’, my precious!) 😉

  4. Once a person decides to kill themselves. they will find a way.
    I know of a person who stood on a stump, put a noose around his neck and drank from a 1/2 gallon of whisky until he blacked out and slid off the stump. Should we outlaw rope, stumps and whisky?
    Or maybe auto’s so there can be no CO2 deaths? And lets not forget rooftops.
    OR, another one, a woman went into the home closet with a belt, placed it around her neck and hitched the other end to a wall coat hanger and just slid into an almost sitting position and died….

  5. Neither does permitless carry result in more suicides or murders, etc. It does reduce the overall successful crime rate however.

  6. The logical thinking person would realize that the tool used in the suicide is a non issue. As noted by other commenters the country left off the list is Japan with a very high suicide rate and almost no access to guns. Will ‘red flag laws’ also have to cover knives, medicines, tall buildings and alcohol to save the suicidal person. No, this is just an attempt to eliminate guns from the public being disguised as a public health issue. What happens when suicide numbers fail to plummet as promised, where do the anti gun crowd go from there.

    • You have to be careful with Japan. Suicide is culturally accepted, and used to be expected in certain cases. Also, their reporting is kind of screwy. Just as some gun suicides here might get categorized as a “gun cleaning accident” to save embarrassment (and an insurance pay out) to the survivors, Japan overly classifies deaths as honorable suicides. A father that kills his wife, 2 kids, and himself counts a 3 homicides and a suicide in the US, but it’s a “family suicide” of suicides in Japan. The Japanese police also have a high closure rate of murder because hard cases often get classified as suicides, even when it seems a pretty obvious mob hit. That said, they still have a significantly suicide rate, almost 100% non-firearm related, but it’s not a true apples-to-apples comparison.

  7. Rural suicides in Australia were almost always firearm or hanging when I was young. From what I can quickly find it still is just some more hanging since all the gun grab laws plus a lot more vehicle “accidents”

    Nothing will stop someone who is determined to kill themselves.

    • Especially single vehicle accidents on long straight roads.

      I remember the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) study on the causes of death for 2010-2011. I will have find more recent data as a comparison.

      Recorded deaths for that statistical year were about 150,000. Deaths from firearms, spread across 3 categories, were 30. 45 people died from cycling accidents. 350 from automotive accidents and 2500 from intentional self harm.

      In the UK the biggest cause of deaths for girls aged between 10 and 16 is horse riding accidents.

      Our firearms laws are a bit overkill for such a small number of actual deaths, most of which were either criminal activity or accidents. Perhaps the same effort should be put into cycling? We do have (often ignored) mandatory bike helmet laws, which is a big reason why cycle commuting is not very common (the others being narrow roads and car drivers). Also car drivers MUST (under penalty of heavy fines and demerit points) keep a 1 meter gap from cyclists.

      We also have among the world’s most policed roads with heavy fines and demerits for slight infractions. 15kmh over the speed limit and you’ve lost your license. Freeway limit is 110kmh (with the exception of the Northern Territory which had more road deaths with a 130kmh limit than they did with no limit at all) but a two lane county road will often have a 100kmh limit.

      Urban 50kmh and reduced speed construction zones are often featured with a police presence to catch law breakers. And finally the Cash Registers, which is a common name for mobile and fixed speed cameras. A lucrative source of state revenue with all the impact of an actual cash register on the side of the road.

      Lets you realize where the priorities are.

  8. The thinking is that suicide attempts by gun are much more lethal than suicide attempts by other means. Further the thinking is that people who attempt suicide and do not successfully kill themselves do not always try a second time at a later time. So restricting access to firearms to suicidal people should result in less suicide deaths, if not less suicide attempts. The difficulty here is identifying suicidal people without denying guns to everyone else.

  9. If self inflicted gun shot wounds were the only form of suicide, that is not the case, the anti gun types might have a point. As it is, the only point they have is the one their heads come to.

  10. Let’s not be dishonest and pretend that accessibility to an option doesn’t matter. The data about Japan and other countries is not useful for the same reason you can’t use the same data to push gun control due to low crime in those places: they are NOT culturally and socially the same.

    Suicide with a gun is easy, relatively quick\painless compared to most methods, and much more likely to lead to death than most options. If you do it right, and most do, it doesn’t matter if someone walks in two minutes later. It’s also easy to do impulsively. There’s also a reason why many buildings have windows that are not able to be opened.

    Taking away pretty much any suicide method would decrease suicide because some people would use it but not other relatively accessible options. But to me, at least, it doesn’t matter. One person’s choice to end their life should not prevent someone else from being able to defend themselves.

    • That’s a bullshit and you know that’s bullshit. With the wide array of pharmacology available to the average person in the US, OD suicide is absurdly easy.

    • “It’s also easy to do impulsively.”

      This gets at the heart of the matter but in an indirect way.

      The real question is this: Are most suicides by firearm impulsive or is picking a method that 1) cannot generally be stopped 2) is extremely effective and 3) irreversible a symptom of being serious about killing oneself as opposed to being impulsive?

      In reality there’s no way to know since we can’t query the dead for this information. However, I would suggest that logically speaking it makes more sense to assume that suicides by firearm are generally committed by people who are fucking-A-serious about dying.

      The reason I would suggest this is because serge also has a good point here: If it’s impulsive then why didn’t they pick another method? If we assume this to be a generally impulsive and irreversible act then why don’t the people pick other equally effective methods that present themselves as options every day? One would suppose that if suicide is an impulsive act due to irrational thought patterns that effectively occur randomly that there would be significantly greater distribution of method because the impulsive thought would occur when another option was present and a firearm was not.

      Impulsive people, logically speaking, probably have greater exposure to cars in the form of driving them and being around traffic. Jumping out in front of a truck or bus or running into a solid object at speed are likely to be fatal yet we’re supposed to assume that the person is so impulsive that they kill themselves but yet somehow they wait to go home and fish out the 9mm to relieve themselves of these thoughts when they could just crash the car they’re driving right now?

      This doesn’t sound impulsive to me. I suspect that the majority of firearm related suicides come from people who have thought about this quite a bit and are really, really serious about taking their own life.

      • I was going to craft a similar reply to ‘Hannibal’ and ‘pwrserge’, but ‘strych9’ nailed it.
        My initial thought in reply to ‘pwrserge’ regarding the use of drugs over a firearm was, ‘Well then why aren’t more suicides by OD?’. But this thought brings up a few quantum possibilities it’s hard to ask the dead or do a study of (though some anti-gun proponents will do anything for funding):
        A) as ‘Hannibal’ says guns are a more effective option, but,
        B) that may only really apply as ‘strych9’ says for the truly serious suicidal where method is irrelevant, or
        C) ‘pwrserge’ brings up a really interesting point about whether the tens of thousands of ODs brought to light in the recent opioid public health scandal are counted in old studies, or yet part of new studies of suicide methodology.

  11. Let’s not lose sight of, and keep the red dot on, why this new wave of considered laws supposedly focus on use of guns in suicide. The medical and mental health professions (regardless of therapeutic methodology, talk or medication) need a scapegoat for their failures of access, affordability, efficacy, quality, and deteriorating professionalism (like the perverse incentives surrounding a well publicized ethics breech in prescribing habits that could no longer be smothered a few years ago). I wish the NRA and others would hammer this point harder.

    I’m not sure how old the Harvard studies being floated around are. But the numbers being released on the opioid public health disaster suggest there’s something being left out of the means of suicide figures (past and present).

    Before that mess broke in the news, anti-gun proponents were trying to float the notion that guns were particularly a menace to the suicidal because of their effectiveness, not allowing a second chance so to speak for those making only ‘a cry for help’. Again I’ll add without any shame, a cry for help that our current medical and mental health professions are incapable of hearing in the first place.

    As has been pointed out in above comments, the logic of ‘no guns equals significantly less suicides’ is more suggestive propaganda (another reason a vastly larger number of us should lose a right) than anything else. May I suggest with equal bias, but perhaps more logic, that use of a firearm for one’s demise is a serious, not so casual, endeavor. There’s absolutely no evidence someone that serious would not successfully try an alternate. The evidence that they don’t attempt or otherwise can’t successfully obtain professional help (ineffectual or not) is that, well, they don’t/can’t.

  12. Easy access to guns DOES result in more suicides. BUT SO WHAT??

    The reality is that people who want to kill themselves will use any means available.

    But unlike hanging, drugs, and some other methods, there’s no going back with a gun, once you get started. Also, guns are the most “effective” way to kill yourself.

    But again. SO WHAT. You have a right to kill yourself. Its your body. Your choice.

    Either way, we need to be intellectually honest in our arguments. So the correct response is SO WHAT. Not “no they won’t”.

    • I think Progressive ideology has the concept that your life belongs to the state and suicide is willful destruction of state property. Only the state can decide on a non natural causes death.

  13. Ok, so if anyone is still reading this editorial and viewing comments (perhaps the author), here’s a late entry. Really it’s a follow up to my earlier post calling for pushing back on the healthcare and mental health industrial complex. To highlight their culpability and systemic neglect of suicide as a public health issue.

    I propose in lieu of any more talk and possibly legislation formulation highlighting firearms as causative, that 2A advocates step up with an alternate. Talk and possible legislation highlighting mental health infrastructure as causative and being held more responsible.

    Here you go. It’s not bill ready, complete in scope, or indicative of how suicide prevention intervention works possibly. But I think you’ll get the message and perhaps pass it along, even to a state representative. Let’s see
    how the ‘professionals’ like being called to task and being given documentable, publicized (sensationalized perhaps?) responsibilities:

    1) All calls to suicide or other mental health emergency help lines indicating strong likelihood of suicide should be referred immediately to a state mandated agency for decision by a psychiatrist as to the best timely intervention.
    2) If immediate intervention is not warranted, all calls in the possible range of suicide will require contact of the caller within 12 hours to set up a clinical visit, evaluation and intervention by an appropriate mental health practitioner. The method of distributing these visits among local private and public mental health practitioners and
    clinics will be set up as determined by a selected panel of local mental health professionals.
    3) These visits will be scheduled within 24 hours of the initial call to a help line. However distributed among local private and public practitioners, individual callers will not be denied a visit on financial qualification.
    4) For each such caller a case (with state department of health) will be opened to track the outcome of any intervention, visit set-up, and outcome assessment of appointment.
    5) For any suicide ultimately handled by any state, county or local agency, a case search will be conducted of any related calls to suicide or mental health emergency intervention lines. A review of the case will be conducted with any clinics and practitioners associated with a formerly opened case intervention, initial visit and follow up care.
    6) The state department of health will annually summarize and publicize the results of suicide intervention and assess the efficacy of mental health practitioner professional case outcomes. Recommendations will be made on the status mental health efficacy in public health efforts to decrease suicide.

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