Pro-gun advocates claim that guns do not cause suicide and that therefore gun-control legislation cannot reduce suicide rates, producing suicide statistics from other nations which have reduced or banned guns to prove the claim. Here the scientific data and claims are examined. It finds that an effective way to save American lives is to enable secure delivery of confidential data from health organizations to the firearms-purchase background-check system, although this may not be enough considering the number of guns already in the country.

Suicide and Homicide across States
Suicide and Homicide across States
This article is a sidebar to the thorough analysis, "A Benthamite Solution to Gun Control" (Yofiel, 2015) on this site.

"A Benthamite Solution to Gun Control" included costs of suicide in gun-violence tax, with the objective to save lives lost and reduce taxes via reduction of gun-violence cost. Out of a total of 1,300 counted objections, 100 claimed that suicide doesn't count as firearm violence, and that gun-control legislation should not attempt to stop suicide.

Frequency of Suicide with Firearms

"Trends in Causes of Firearm Fatalities" (Yofiel, February 2016) estimates that 22,658 firearm suicides will occur in 2016, or 65.8% of all firearm suicides. The raw number of firearm suicides is increasing at 2.59% annually. With USA's steady 0.78% annual increase in population, this is 1.81%/year, average-growth adjusted (AGA). Total firearm fatalities are increasing at 1.05%/year (non-AGA, 0.26% AGA). So firearm suicides are increasing between twice and thrice the rate of total firearm fatalities, resulting in more deaths, and more deaths as a proportion of firearm fatalities, as illustrated below. This makes firearm suicide an important topic for gun control.

Suicide Gap is Increasing in Firearm Fatalities
Suicide Gap is Increasing in Firearm Fatalities

Compared to the total number of successful suicides in the USA (40,341), 50.89% chose firearms as the method in 2014, validating the claim of the Brady campaign that firearms are the method of suicide for more than half of all successful suicide attempts by a very small margin. From the same article, the following plot shows the current trends for suicide injuries and deaths, with the X axis logarithmically scaled so that the trends are clearly visible.

Trends in Suicide Deaths and Injuries
Trends in Suicide Deaths and Injuries

The logarithmic plot shows there are ~700,000 suicide injuries resulting in hospitalization. Of these, ~600,000 are injuries, but only ~5,000 are injuries if a firearm was used (0.1%). In contrast, there are ~40,000 successful suicide attempts, and deaths, and half the deaths are with firearms (50%). So if a suicide victim does not have access to a gun, but still attempts to commit suicide, the chances of survival are ~500 times greater.

Some claim suicide victims would just use other means, so attempt to reduce gun suicides are ineffective, but data do not substantiate that.

  • Restricting access to common means of suicide, such as firearms, toxic gas, pesticides and other, has been shown to be effective in reducing rates of death in suicide. ("Controlling Access to Suicide Means," Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health, 2011).
  • The availability of a gun, and its use, contributes to half of all successful suicide attempts, and is lethal on 99 out of 100 attempts. Other methods of suicide are far more likely to fail. "One important suicide fact that nobody Is talking about" (Mother Jones, 11 September 2015) reported on the ratio of fatal to nonfatal suicide attempts.
    Suicide Fatality Much More Likely with Guns
    Suicide Fatality Much More Likely with Guns

    Therefore, the most effective way for gun-control legislation to save lives would appear to be to decrease the number of suicides with firearms.

    Factors Affecting Suicide with Firearms

    In America, suicide with a firearm is markedly more significant as age increases ("Means of Suicide," Suicide Prevention Resource Center, undated).

    Method of Suicide by Age
    Method of Suicide by Age

    Suicides in the USA are 20x-30x more likely in the presence of a gun, and 2-3x more likely to succeed with a gun than by other methods:

    Examining State Variations

    One of the problems in assessing variation across states is that there are other factors varying across states which also affect the variations. For example, suicide is more likely at different ages, and the age distribution is different across different states (as one instance, Florida has a large retired population). Should one age-adjust the data across the states in order to determine the variance? That depends upon what the objective of the analysis is, and which factors are really important. The most striking variation with respect to firearm fatality is this data illustrating state variation by political leaning (from "Gun deaths by state political leanings: a closer look," Crowdpac, 7 January 2016).
    Suicides by State and Political Leaning
    Suicides by State and Political Leaning

    The standard way to get around this problem in scientific analysis is not to look at all the states separately, but to group them in different subsets, and then examine the variation between the subsets. This is planned on a future article on this site.

    The NRA's Position on Suicide

    "Suicide and firearms" (NRA-ILA, 6 November 1999) fully describes the NRA's position on suicide, as follows:

    • First, it argues that guns either cause suicide or they don't. Guns don't cause suicide, and therefore gun-control legislature to reduce suicide fatalities is wrong. This is simply a logical non sequitur. Guns are a method of suicide, and the cause is depression or similar. The above scientific evidence demonstrates that lives can be saved by reducing access to guns as a method of suicide.
    • Second, it argues that gun-control legislature has not reduced suicide rates in other countries. However, the cause of suicide--depression and similar--are usually caused by social attitudes to the self and value of life, which vary considerably by different countries. Social causes also vary considerably over spans of decades, and existing choices for suicide may not make restriction to gun access have much effect:
      • Japan is now often cited, where suicide rates have not declined despite total bans on firearms. But Japan has a long history of actually admiring suicide, dating back to the seppuku (stomach cutting) of shamed samurai a thousand years ago. In the 1960s-1980s, the largest number of suicides in Japan was by college students with inadequate grades. Now the largest suicide problem in Japan is by young professionals who are failing in the workplace, as companies there have a tradition of punishing workers rather than firing them, and quitting is not socially acceptable ("Suicide in Japan," Wikipedia, 2016).
      • Other countries also do not have the same number of guns, and so controlling gun access has less impact on existing preferred methods. In Europe, hanging was found to be the most frequent means of suicide (49.5%), followed by poisoning by drugs (12.7%), jumping (9.5%), firearms (7.6%), poisoning by other means (5.1%), jumping or lying before moving object (5.0%), drowning (4.2%). Other methods accounted for 6.3% of remaining suicides. Thus gun control has little impact, because it is only chase in ~1/19th of cases anyway. "("Suicide methods in Europe: A gender-specific analysis of countries participating in the 'European alliance against depression'," J. Epidemiol. Community Health 2008).

    In the USA, suicide is against the Christian-based natural law on which the nation was founded ("Gun rights, natural rights, and the declaration of independence," Yofiel, January 2016). While some argue that suicide's illegality is an infringement of individual liberty, it would still take a constitutional amendment to make suicide legal, and is not considered appropriate by most of society. The largest number of suicides in the USA is by unemployed middle-aged white men, who have health insurance and could easily be screened to identify. In psychiatric evaluation, it is not difficult to determine who is at significant risk. By the scientific studies of American suicides above, restricting access to guns would save a significant number of lives.

    The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (1993) explicitly made it illegal for anyone who has been adjudicated as a mental defective, or committed to a mental institution, to purchase a firearm, but this has not been enforced. The most common explanation has been a fear of reprisal for sharing confidential information, even with other organizations who are bound to confidentially ("How can sheriffs keep guns from mentally ill?" officer.com, 27 January 2016). New efforts by the Obama administration to break the logjam have been obstructed by the NRA, with the justifications just cited and countered.

     

     

    Data Sources

    The following table shows the data for the graph at the beginning of this article.

    Firearm Suicides and Gun Ownership by State
    Firearm Suicides and Gun Ownership by State

    Note: The graph was drawn using mean values for the last known 10 years of suicide data. For information on the statistical measures, see "Trends in Causes of Firearm Fatalities" (Yofiel, February 2016).

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