Does Gun Ownership Promote Suicide?


Noting that two-thirds of gun deaths in the United States are suicides, New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise ponders the relationship between having access to a firearm and killing yourself. Within the United States, she notes, higher rates of gun ownership are associated with higher rates of suicide. But that relationship may not be causal:

Some dispute the link, saying that it does not prove cause and effect, and that other factors, like alcoholism and drug abuse, may be driving the association. Gary Kleck, a professor of criminology at Florida State University in Tallahassee, contends that gun owners may have qualities that make them more susceptible to suicide. They may be more likely to see the world as a hostile place, or to blame themselves when things go wrong, a dark side of self-reliance.

A 2002 analysis by Wharton economist Mark Duggan found that gun availability may help explain the correlation between firearm ownership and suicide, but it is not the only factor:

Taken together, the results presented in this paper suggest that much of the positive relationship between firearms ownership and suicide is driven by selection—individuals with above average suicidal tendencies are more likely to own a gun and to live in areas with relatively many gun owners. But because female suicide rates are less responsive to the rate of gun ownership than are male suicide rates [which is significant because women are substantially less likely to kill themselves with guns], it does appear that instrumentality effects also play some role. And finally, while suicide rates have been declining in the U.S. in recent years, the reduction in the fraction of households who own a gun does not appear to be the force that is driving this decline.

In a 2007 review of international evidence published by the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, criminologists Don Kates and Gary Mauser concluded that "there is simply no relationship evident between the extent of suicide and the extent of gun ownership." Here are some examples they offer to illustrate that point:

Sweden, with over twice as much gun ownership as neighboring Germany and a third more gun suicide, nevertheless has the lower overall suicide rate. Greece has nearly three times more gun ownership than the Czech Republic and somewhat more gun suicide, yet the overall Czech suicide rate is over 175% higher than the Greek rate. Spain has over 12 times more gun ownership than Poland, yet the latter's overall suicide rate is more than double the former's. Tragically, Finland has over 14 times more gun ownership than neighboring Estonia, and a great deal more gun?related suicide. Estonia, however, turns out to have a much higher suicide rate than Finland overall.

Another frequently cited example: Japan, with a gun ownership rate of 0.6 per 100 people, compared to 88.8 in the United States, has a suicide rate nearly twice as high as high. China and South Korea likewise have much lower rates of civilian gun ownership but much higher rates of suicide. The relationship between gun ownership and suicide clearly is neither consistent nor straightforward. Yet here is how a public health expert consulted by the Times sums up the evidence:

"The literature suggests that having a gun in your home to protect your family is like bringing a time bomb into your house," said Dr. Mark Rosenberg, an epidemiologist who helped establish the C.D.C.'s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. "Instead of protecting you, it's more likely to blow up."

Rosenberg not only assumes a cause-and-effect relationship between gun ownership and suicide; he completely discounts any countervailing self-defense benefit. When public health specialists do consider self-defense, they count only those cases where the attacker is shot. That method, as Kleck, Kates, and other criminologists have been pointing out for decades, grossly underestimates defensive gun uses, which typically involve brandishing a weapon to ward off an assailant. Comparing the likelihood that a gun owner will kill himself to the likelihood that he will kill an aggressor therefore tells us nothing about the merits of gun ownership. That sort of slippery, biased analysis exemplifies what is wrong with the pseudo-medical gun research that President Obama portrays as objective, scientific, and self-evidently worthy of taxpayer funding. Here is how Rosenberg summed up his approach to gun research in a 1994 interview with Washington Post columnist William Raspberry:

We need to revolutionize the way we look at guns, like what we did with cigarettes. It used to be that smoking was a glamour symbol—cool, sexy, macho. Now it is dirty, deadly—and banned.

Yet Obama insists that "public health research on gun violence is not advocacy."