Is Buying a Gun a Suicidal Act?

Anyone who acquires a firearm, we are told, is inviting a bloody death by suicide.

Editor's Note: Steve Chapman is on vacation. The following column was originally published in July 2008.

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?

Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    hey, don't delete our comments on the original version of this article!

  • WTF||

    I guess they didn't like our first attempts, and want us to try harder.

  • NotSure||

    I must be suffering a strange deju vu, I could have sworn I just commented on this article and there were other comments as well.

  • WTF||

    You know who else engaged in censorship?

  • ||

    Gaius Marcius Rutilus?

  • Whiterun Guard||

    Dr. Irving Censor of the Censorship Institute?

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Marcus Porcius Cato?

  • ||

    Australia's chief censor used to be a guy called John Dickie

  • Killazontherun||

    He. He. He. You said penis.

  • ||

    we are a simple people

  • The Hammer||

    The Brady Campaign?

  • Harvard||

    [Anyone who acquires a firearm, we are told, is inviting]

    Indeed. And fetching. And prudent, realistic, independent, unapologetic, wise beyond words, uncompromising, and willing (when necessary) to kill himself without the aid of any pantload Detroit pathologist's assistance.

  • Daniel||

    Editor's Note: Steve Chapman is on vacation so we're just going to throw a 5 year old article up for the hell of it.

  • Rich||

    You know who else owned a gun and committed suicide?

  • Lord Humungus||

    Benji?

  • ||

    Gaius Marcius Rutilus?

  • Killazontherun||

    No way a some dude was walking around Rome two thousand years ago with a name like 'Rutilus.' That's just asking for an ass whoopin'.

  • ||

    He probably was walking around in some kind of dress or skirt or something pansy-ass like that.

  • Killazontherun||

    I see he lived contemporaneously with the Etruscans. That would explain the flare.

  • ||

    Now don't start with all your anti-Etruscan rants here Killaz. This is an othering-free blog.

  • Killazontherun||

    Come for the free crack, stay for the flippant racism.

  • Killazontherun||

    Oh, and homophobia.

    Etruscans were just Greeks without the mass poverty.

  • Killazontherun||

    Eva Braun?

  • Anomalous||

    Ernest Hemingway?

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Courtney Love's late husband?

  • ||

    "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,"

    Yeah Matthew, you could tell me that.

  • Longtorso||

    So if we buy guns for members of the Harvard faculty......

  • ||

    I have never been to Harvard, but I am guessing if I were to go, ten minutes after arriving I would be carted off to jail with bloody fists.

  • Rich||

    Just remember: At Harvard, they do not end their sentences with prepositions.

  • wareagle||

    Lady 1: where are you from?
    Lady 2: I am from a place where we do not end sentences with prepositions.
    Lady 1: so, where are you from, bitch?

  • ||

    My younger daughter once gave me a birthday card with that joke.

  • David Pittelli||

    Actually, at Harvard we know that that is a rule lacking historical or logical basis, made up by 19th Century pedants. And we sometimes even quote Winston Churchill: "That is a rule up with which I will not put."

  • Rich||

    Asshole. ;-)

  • db||

    If you bought a chain link fence cage, a bag of extra heavy duty zip ties, a suction cup bow-and-arrow, and six rabid weasels, I could tell you your risk of suicide is going to be two- to tenfold higher in the next month or so.

  • Rich||

    +6

  • Longtorso||

    Or you'd be having Warty over for a slumber party.

  • Killazontherun||

    What about a large roll of plastic, a hack saw, a bottle of Drano and a bag of lye?

  • db||

    You have to stay true to form and be more ridiculous, but good showing.

  • ||

    I would say that the risk of someone in your household "disappearing" would go up 70-fold in the next week.

  • Bobarian||

    What about a rolling chair and a short length of rope?

    Do you expect the clerk to intervene?

    And what if you buy womens lingerie and some hand lotion to go with it?

    Do you expect the clerk to warn you about David Carradine, or just be really creeped out?

  • gaoxiaen||

    Where the fuck can I buy rabid weasels? Try to be a little bit serious.

  • Michael Price||

    Thanks for the warning man, I guess I won't buy that last rabid weasel.

  • Lord Humungus||

    if you even get up in the morning, I could your risk of getting in a car accident is going to be two-to-tenfold higher in the next hour or so.

  • Lord Humungus||

    if you masturbate, I could tell your risk of penile perforation is going to be two-to-tenfold higher in the next minute or so.

  • Killazontherun||

    I knew there was something different about being in my forties that I just couldn't get a handle on. Where the fuck did the morning wake up woody go?

  • Rich||

    "To infinity and beyond!" ;-)

  • Loki||

    ...I just couldn't get a handle on

    I see what you did there.

  • sarcasmic||

    Just make suicide illegal. Then nobody will do it because laws are magic.

  • wareagle||

    the value of this 4-year old article is that it shows the timelessness of liberal stupidity. You see, if we outlaw guns, then only outlaws will commit suicide. And wouldn't that make for a better world...

  • Killazontherun||

    To think people object to Fast and Furious (fucking ampersand hating squirrels) when clearly the idea behind the plan was to get some drug lords to off themselves.

  • RantoYang||

    Well now, that makes a lot of sene dude.

    www.Dot-Anon.tk

  • anon||

    Meh, article accepts the premise that suicide is bad.

    If you really feel that useless to the entire world, you probably are. Please leave us peacefully.

  • Raymond Luxury Yach-t||

    But don't use a gun. Someone has to clean up the mess, and you might just end up a brain damaged burden to society.

  • Torontonian||

    Assuming one's suicidal objectives are:

    1. Minimize pain (intensity x duration).
    2. Maximize probability of success.
    3. Minimize negative outcomes given the possibility of failure.
    4. Minimize cost/effort/preparation/clean-up. (Assuming you care at all about clean-up.)

    I'd imagine there are better methods than suicide by handgun.

  • anon||

    Double aught buckshot from a 12ga is the recommended method. 45acp with hollow points is second best I think.

    Yeah, I've actually researched it a little.

  • Torontonian||

    Given a full range of choices, I'd prefer something that might actually be pleasant.... like nitrous oxide hypoxia.

  • The Hammer||

    Find yourself a Black Mamba and let it bite you a few times. Almost certain success, and supposedly a nice high as you drift gently away.

  • Raymond Luxury Yach-t||

    Suicide bag (exit bag) using nitrogen

  • Joseph C. Moore (USN Ret.||

    If a person's body is theirs to control (abortion) why is suicide not in their control? The government has insinuated itself in all facets of private matters to the detriment of autonomy of the individual.

  • The Hammer||

    Yep.

  • Raistlin||

    It reminds me of that line from "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." When the lovestruck hero lamented loosing his girl, he contemplated ending his life and his servant said to him, "You can't kill yourself! Don't you know the penalty for attempted suicide is death?!"

  • Loki||

    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.

    Yet. Give them time. Once all the guns are gone, then they'll be on to their next freakout. It's the circle of life libtard stupidity.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    I'd have to go digging to get the exact figures, and I'm too lazy. But I've read that Japan's suicide rate is something like twice ours, despite the fact that virtually no Japanese have access to a gun.

  • Pagan Priestess||

    Aokigahara. Maybe Japan needs to ban forests?

  • IceTrey||

    How can you replace natural gas? Methane is methane. It's a lack of oxygen that kills you when you stick your head in the oven, not the toxicity of the gas.

  • ||

    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. http://www.lunettesporto.com/l.....-3_16.html 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.

  • nike air max mens||

    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.

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