Armed and Dangerous?

Why buying a gun is not a suicidal act

Americans often buy guns for self-defense, a purpose that now has Supreme Court validation. But according to advocates of gun control, those purchasers overlook the people who pose the greatest threat: themselves. Anyone who acquires a firearm, we are told, is inviting a bloody death by suicide.

So says Matthew Miller, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. "If you bought a gun today, I could tell you the risk of suicide to you and your family members is going to be two- to tenfold higher over the next 20 years," he told The Washington Post. Since the chance of a gun being used for suicide is so much higher than the chance of it being used to prevent a murder, we would all be better off with fewer firearms around.

It's a rich irony—as though smoke alarms were increasing fire fatalities. But the argument raises two questions: Is it true? And, when it comes to gun control policy, does it matter?

As it turns out, the claims about guns and suicide don't stand up well to scrutiny. A 2004 report by the National Academy of Sciences was doubtful, noting that the alleged association is small and may be illusory.

Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck says there are at least 13 published studies finding no meaningful connection between the rate of firearms and the rate of suicides. The consensus of experts, he says, is that an increase in gun ownership doesn't raise the number of people who kill themselves—only the number who do it with a gun.

That makes obvious sense. Someone who really wants to commit suicide doesn't need a .38, because alternative methods abound. Gun opponents, however, respond that guns inevitably raise the rate because they're uniquely lethal. Take away the gun, and you greatly increase the chance of survival.

But in his 1997 book, Targeting Guns: Firearms and Their Control, Kleck points out that "suicide attempts with guns are only slightly more likely to end in death than those involving hanging, carbon monoxide poisoning, or drowning." It's not hard to think of some other pretty foolproof means of self-destruction—such as jumping off a tall (or even not so tall) building, stepping in front of a train or driving at 80 mph into a telephone pole.

People who use guns are generally hellbent on ending their lives. So deprived of a sidearm, they will no doubt find another reliable method—rather than swallow a dozen aspirin and wake up in the emergency room. Banning guns is no more likely to reduce suicides than banning ice cream is to curb obesity.

A few decades ago, various European countries changed the type of natural gas used for home heating and cooking—replacing a toxic form with a harmless variety. That step eliminated one time-tested way of killing oneself. Alas, while the number of gas suicides declined, in most of these countries, the death toll didn't.

The same pattern holds for guns. The National Academy of Sciences report noted that any link between firearms and suicides "is not found in comparisons across countries." The number of guns in a nation tells you nothing about its suicide rate.

But let's suppose science could establish that people who obtain firearms do indeed increase their death rate (or the death rate of their family members) from suicide. So what?

Buying a car may shorten your lifespan, since traffic accidents are a major killer. Building a backyard swimming pool creates a potential fatal hazard to you and your loved ones. But nobody says the government should interfere with such decisions.

Personal safety is a far more central matter of individual autonomy than those choices. A mentally stable person living in a crime-ridden neighborhood should be free to judge whether she's more at risk from street criminals than from a spell of intense depression.

Presumptuous paternalists argue that Americans should be deprived of guns because gun owners are their own worst enemies. A lot of Americans would reply: We can't trust ourselves, but we can trust you?

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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  • ||

    I always found those statistics funny. Back before I went on anti-depressants I had planned to commit suicide. I owned and my parents owned pistols, rifles, and shotguns. The funny thing is that I wasn't going to use any of them because they would make a mess and the last thing I wanted was for them to have to clean up after I was dead.

  • pmp||

    This is the worst Steven Chapman Op-Ed in a long time.

    Look, there are some very depressed people who wouldn't have the courage/follow-through to kill themselves except by using a gun.

    If guns are available, some people who would otherwise continue their lives being miserable are going to kill themselves.

    That's a pretty straightforward statement. There are ways we can defend against it--e.g., just because some people "mis-use" their liberties doesn't mean that everyone should have them taken away--but we shouldn't be seen as making up our own facts. We should just bite the bullet and concede that guns increase suicide. (The magnitude of the increase is another question.)

  • Other Matt||

    We should just bite the bullet and concede that guns increase suicide.

    Um...I think the whole point it that it doesn't. It raises the level of suicide by firearm but due to substitution does not affect the aggregate rate.

    Not to argue with your premise that it has nothing to do with our civil liberties, I just don't want to grant them anything which isn't true. They spend too much time lying as it is.

  • Kolohe||

    It's a rich irony-as though smoke alarms were increasing fire fatalities

    Like pmp, I'm pro-article thesis, but this is a terrible analogy. I'll leave it to Mademoiselle Morissette to say whether or not it is actually ironic.

  • ||

    I can't believe that the article didn't mention Japan at all; a whole nation of people that don't have guns and off themselves at a surprising rate.

    If the Japanese had guns, there would definitely be a huge increase in "gun assisted" suicides but I highly doubt that the actual number of suicides would increase very much, if at all.

  • ||

    Well, I doubt even the staunchest gun control advocate would claim that gun ownership somehow encourages suicide. I guess guns are more like a Dr. Kevorkian, if you need 'im. Skewing statistics is the subset of people who buy firearms for the express purpose of committing suicide [citation needed].
    Suicide really does have its origins in a state of mind, just like John Woo double pistol action does.

  • ||

    According to this, at some point Eastern Europeans were offing themselves like it was going out of style. Also, and this is cliche, but dudes are way more effective at committing suicide than women.

  • ||

  • J||

    I have no idea if guns increase suicides. I know I am not going to take the analysis from a vague Chapman article, however. I would buy that people are at least overemphasizing the increased suicide risk from guns because they dislike guns in general though. I can certainly imagine people being more comfortable killing themselves with a gun because it seems quicker than some of the other options, so even if it's not a huge number, or even a statistically provable number, I would be amazed if they don't exist.

    But so what? People should be able to have guns. People should also be able to kill themselves if they want to, so using suicide as an anti-gun argument is bullshit.

  • ||

    "Look, there are some very depressed people who wouldn't have the courage/follow-through to kill themselves except by using a gun."

    Interesting conjecture, but how are you going to test it? For that matter, does courage or the lack thereof on the part of someone contemplating suicide have any bearing at all on whether I should have the means to defend my life and property? Certainly not, any more than the fact that some people have immolated themselves should justify banning gasoline.

    -jcr

  • Dave B.||

    If guns are available, some people who would otherwise continue their lives being miserable are going to kill themselves.

    That's a pretty straightforward statement.



    It's straightforward, but Steve presented evidence against it in his article. All you have is your belief that he's wrong. Plenty of incorrect statements are straightforward: The world is flat. The average American is 7 feet tall. Marijuana has no medical applications.

    There are ways we can defend against it--e.g., just because some people "mis-use" their liberties doesn't mean that everyone should have them taken away--but we shouldn't be seen as making up our own facts.



    Did you even read the article? The last 4 paragraphs make basically the argument you're talking about.

  • economist||

    I've noticed that usually when Chapman writes on libertarian issues more associated with the right wing of the movement than the left wing, he usually tries to make his argument over something small, harmless, and vague enough that most people could theoretically agree with it by squinting and ignoring certain parts. His boldest statement "Obama: a liberal like no other" is asinine.

  • J||

    Steve barely presented evidence against it. I imagine the results are much more conflicted than reported about those studies, nevermind the fact that others have found a link.

    But even if all the studies found no or little link, that is likely to mean that the link cannot be shown strongly enough that there is only a 5% chance it is incorrect (in one standard methodology). If they are 90% sure there is a link, that is considered too much error to say there is one, however, although it may be suggested in the discussion.

    Imagine that they are 95% sure there is no link, to go the reverse - you can still think there is a 5% chance there is a link. And none of this addresses the problem that these are most likely population analyses, which does not preclude any individual from having only shot himself and being afraid to try any other way.

    So it is a very reasonable assumption, actually.

  • ||

    I know how to test for this:

    Pick a set of people who have been identified as at risk for committing suicide.

    Detain them for a while and provide some of them a set of possible tools to be used to kill themselves that includes guns, and others a set of possible tools that does not include guns. Then compare suicide rates and how many of those were committed with guns.

    No?

  • J||

    *well it sorta addresses that problem, if you care about suicide as a reason for preventing guns on a large scale. if you care whether they actually might make very small differences for individuals, however, it doesn't really address it.

  • ||

    I've noticed that usually when Chapman writes on libertarian issues more associated with the right wing of the movement than the left wing, he usually tries to make his argument over something small, harmless, and vague enough that most people could theoretically agree with it by squinting and ignoring certain parts.

    [citation needed]


    Reinmoose,

    Sounds ethical. ;)

  • ||

    What about Texas/Alaska and Washington, DC? Seems like a good case of people that have ready access to firearms vs. an unconstitutional ban on firearms?

    I'm at work now so I can't check but can anyone dig up their suicide rates? I know if I lived in either place I'd probably wanna off myself.

  • ||

    a set of possible tools that does not include guns

    Don't forget the chainsaw!

  • ||

    People who use guns are generally hellbent on ending their lives

    Consider revising. The sentence reads as if people that use guns for ANY purpose are suicidal.

    Ugh. Too many paper reviews, not enough coffee...

  • ||

    Don't forget the chainsaw!

    Anybody that commits suicide with a chainsaw is another breed entirely. :)

  • ||

    re: "people who use guns are generally hellbent on ending their lives..."

    People who use guns to COMMIT SUICIDE are generally hellbent on ending their lives, as well as those who leap off of buildngs, bridges, and in front of trains. Its total, final death, unlike OD'ing on pills or slashing wrists which usually only amount to attempts rather than successful suicides.

    I think if you are going to do it, you will pick the quickest and most assured way to be dead. Anything that offers a chance of being "rescued" from the attempt of suicide is IMO a plea for help or pity or both, a "poor me, somebody love me" cry played to the tune of an empty bottle of percocet. Sorry, that sounds harsh, but its do or don't do with suicide. If a gun presents the easiest, fastest and greatest guarantee of accomplishing the goal of suicide, it will be used, provided the suicidal individual is serious in his or her intent.

  • No Name Guy||

    "Clean coal" is like "fat free lard".

  • ||

    It is amazing how much hate Chapman gets on these boards. I certainly don't hold every one of his articles in high regard, but this isn't a bad one.

    What does it even mean to say that having a gun "increases your risk of suicide" as if it was the same as the risk of getting cancer from cigarettes or the risk of having a tornado blow your house down? Suicide is something you, and only you, control. They couldn't possibly be trying to imply that having a gun somehow makes you more likely to have suicidal thoughts, or to be depressed, or cause the suicide itself. The gun is simply a convenient tool for that purpose, and the people who are using them to kill themselves are doing so actively and willingly. The only thing left to argue is that it is efficient and effective, making a gun an enticing choice if you do decide to go the suicidal route. But that then implies that the increase would come only from people who would use guns not only instead of other methods, but would use only guns and not other methods. I won't attempt to guess at how many people that actually is, but the category of suicidal people who can't or won't use any method but a gun would seem minimal at best.

    Plus, again, like it was stated in the end of the article and reitterated in the comments: Who cares? You can't ban something simply because it is misused. Especially not if the misuse affects no one but the user.

  • No Name Guy||

    Ah shit wrong thread.

    Um, guns ans suicide. Yeah, Japan has the highest rate of suicide in the world, but also the harshest gun control laws. So people will always find a way.

  • ||

    You can't ban something simply because it is misused. Especially not if the misuse affects no one but the user.

    Wow- where the hell have you been, for the last fifty years?


    [I agree with you completely]

  • jtuf||

    A lot of Americans would reply: We can't trust ourselves, but we can trust you?

    Great summary.

  • Brian||

    Matthew Miller must feel suicidal.

  • Other Matt||

    A lot of Americans would reply: We can't trust ourselves, but we can trust you?

    Great summary.


    "Obviously not"

    Better summary

  • Jordan||

    It is amazing how much hate Chapman gets on these boards. I certainly don't hold every one of his articles in high regard, but this isn't a bad one.



    Chapman-bashing is what all the cool kids do, apparently. Good article.

  • ||

    Don't read the rest of this post if me being an asshole offends you.

    People own their own goddam lives. People have the fuckin' right to end their own goddam life. When suicidal people succeed in their quest to end their lives, it's just too damn bad. If your too stupid to end your life absent a firearm, you are probably too stupid to operate one.

    Sorry, suicide is a right that both parties will forever be unable to take away.

    Besides all of that, it costs society less to bury a corpse than treat the living basket case.

  • ||

  • RobertG||

    Presumptuous paternalists argue that Americans should be deprived of guns because gun owners are their own worst enemies.

    Well we learn something every day. I had thought Presumptuous Paternalistic Jerks were my worst enemy but then I am just a Bitter American clinging to my God and guns. Thanks for setting me straight on that Presumptuous Paternalistic Jerks.
    Damn, but I do hate Liberals.
    Good read Mr. Chapman; don't let the Presumptuous Paternalistic Jerks get you. (o:

  • ||

    Pedantic catch of the thread.

    Windtell; Alaska, Texas and Washington DC are three places. You cannot use the pronoun, either. Either means one of two. It does not mean one of three.

    As for the balance of your comment, Were I as provincial as you appear to be, unable to find joy and beauty living in Texas, Alaska, or Washington D.C. I too would off myself.

  • ||

    Actually we would be safer with less doctors!
    http://www.iatrogenic.org/define.html

  • ||

    I'm with J sub D. Suicide, the right to non-life, is as much a right as life is. So whether gun ownership increases the occurrence of suicides is irrelevent.

    That said there are a lot of people who don't believe that suicide is a right, and who believe the false meme that owning a gun is a lot more dangerous than not owning a gun. The anti freedom crowd has done a good job of selling twisted statistics on this issue.

    All such arguments ignore the fact that the risks associated with owning a gun are critically dependent on the person who owns the gun. Idiots who own guns probably shoot themselves in the foot a lot, or in the head if they like to look down the barrel while they "dry" fire them. That has no bearing on whether non-idiots should decide whether to own a gun.

  • ||

    Actually, the whole thesis that availability of guns increases the suicide rate should be pretty to easy to test statistically. Simply look at the incidence of suicide in, say, New York City, where the incidence of gun ownership is extremely low, and the corresponding incidence where it is very high, such as in Pennsylvania or any Rocky Mountain state.

    Of course, one could, I suppose, argue that New Yorkers have far more convincing reasons to want to end it all.

  • ||

    Rats. I was coming here to say the same thing as Windtell re: Japan's suicide rate/gun control.

  • LarryA||

    Look, there are some very depressed people who wouldn't have the courage/follow-through to kill themselves except by using a gun.

    In my experience (handling suicide hotline calls, social work, etc.) it works the opposite. People who consider suicide with a gun know exactly how far they can go. They'll load the gun, cock it, then make the hotline call. People with pills tend to take the pills, then make the call, trusting that if they change their mind someone will get to them in time. For anyone ambivalent about suicide the chances of a fatal error are enormously greater with pills than with a firearm.

  • Think for yourself||

    It appears that none of you has heard of the British coal gas story. I'll give you the gist: when Britain phased out coal gas lines (which had been a popular means of suicide), suicide rates permanently dropped by a third. Lesson being that, in some cases, if you remove the means to suicide, you greatly reduce its incidence. It's actually not common for suicidal people to pursue a subsitute method if the primary method fails.

    If you're curious about this: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/06/magazine/06suicide-t.html

    You can't just say, "Oh! Look at Japan and New York with their strict gun laws and high suicide rates!" There are a whole host of factors that play into suicide rates. Do some research on the topic. You might be surprised what you find. The article I listed above is a good jumping off point, if only for the research they cite.

    Also, look at the Duke Ellington / Taft Bridge phenomena: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9900E3D61E3AF93BA25751C0A9659C8B63&sec=health&spon=&pagewanted=2

  • AKD||

    LarryA,

    The chance for fatal error (or, err, fatal success) with use in an attempt is greater for firearms. The chance of fatal error without use in an attempt is greater for firearms (a loaded gun is more dangerous than a pill bottle). If all suicide attempts included "a call for help" you could compare, but they do not. Your observation is not really on methodologies, but on the psychology of help line users.

    Think for yourself,

    Australia provides evidence of substitution, and is a much better cultural comparison than Japan.

    http://www.atypon-link.com/GPI/doi/abs/10.1521/suli.33.2.151.22775

    Australia has claimed great success in reducing "gun violence" through it draconian regulation of firearm ownership, and there is some truth to the claims. Unfortunately, a a great deal of the "gun violence" has apparently been replaced by "cord violence."

  • M\'||

    Already happened in my family - twice in two years. I still support private ownership of firearms. They were their own victims plain and simple. Don't anyone believe for a moment that I'm being insensitive in any way because it is very painful when it happens. They were simply adults that made their own decision after resisting all reasonable attempts at intervention. I forgive them.

  • M\'||

    I should add that they were piss-drunk at the time and the outcome was preferrable to them going out and ruining the life of some innocent bystander.

  • ||

    I very much agree with the authors conclusions. Very well stated. I'm often amazed, how logic and fact, no matter the issue, are so often ignored. Emotion and "truthyness" seem to be the guides used by the misguided.

  • Jim Sachsen||

    In 1986 Arthur Kellerman published his "study" in the New Englad Journal of Medicine which claimed that "a gun in the home is 43 times more likely" to be used to kill a friend, loved one, or commit suicide. Kellerman's study was methodology was quickly picked apart by academicians, and his study easily debunked in the literature. It is in fact a case study in how to lie with statistics, but the "43 times more likely" canard was widely reported by the media, and remains a recurring meme in victim-disarmament propaganda.

    After reading the Kellerman "study" and criticisms of it, the late Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko wryly observed that using Kellerman's methods, one could just as easily "prove" that installing a bathtub in one's home makes the homeowner 43 times more likely to drown in one.

    In a related story, people who check into hospitals are undoubtedly "43 times more likely" to die within two months, ergo hospitals are dangerous places which should be avoided.

  • AKD||

    "In a related story, people who check into hospitals are undoubtedly "43 times more likely" to die within two months, ergo hospitals are dangerous places which should be avoided."

    Actually some truth there.

    But in regards to Kellerman, didn't his "gun in the home" statistics include guns brought into the home unlawfully? (Not that it matters given the far deeper flaws in the study.)

  • dana hansen||

    funny you should mention ice cream/obesity: there are people who would do just that, don't you know? (witness the various flaps about trans-fat/palm oil on popcorn/"supersize me"/etc). Also, if guns caused suicide at the rate the good doctor projects, given the number of firearms that are available in homes today, this minute, then we should have seen literally millions of suicide by firearm deaths over these past years.

    If that had happened, you can bet the media would've let us know about it.

    It ain't true on it's face by simple logic.

    The Madman has spoken

  • wylde bill||

    Buying a car may shorten your lifespan, since traffic accidents are a major killer. Building a backyard swimming pool creates a potential fatal hazard to you and your loved ones. But nobody says the government should interfere with such decisions.

    At the moment...

  • TPE||

    pmp - "We should just bite the bullet and concede that guns increase suicide. (The magnitude of the increase is another question.)"
    If you do not know the "magnitude" then you do not actually know if they do. See there is no clear or great correlation without that other factors may be in play. This is simple research and statistical knowledge. The reason you see this kind of research out there is because people have agendas and most of the population just doesn't care to learn, research, or explore anything. It simple to hard and time consuming being lazy.

  • Jan||

    HD PORN DOWNOADS
    http://www.freshporn.org

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