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Suicide And Firearms

Saturday, November 6, 1999

It has long been the practice of anti-gun groups and elements of the media to lump firearm suicides, homicides and accidents--whose causes are separate and distinct, and must be in order to be addressed as such--in order to scare the public with alarming statistics. Anti-gun advocates, including members of the public health community, recently have taken to combining suicide and homicide figures in the U.S. This allows them to conceal the decline in U.S. homicide rates (and to exaggerate the so-called "societal costs" of gun ownership). They have done this more particularly in the last few years while the U.S. homicide rate has been declining (despite a 100% increase in handgun ownership since the 1970s). But then, inconsistently, when comparing the U.S. to Europe, they only compare the homicide rates. They never use the combined homicide-suicide figure--because it would refute their entire argument; and show that despite Europe's harsh anti-gun laws, its homicide-suicide combined rates are higher than that of the U.S.1

Is there a cause-and-effect relationship between firearms and suicide? Nearly everything gets blamed for suicide at one time or another--love, hate, religion, pain, boredom, fear, shame, guilt, alcoholism, drug addiction, family dissolution, loss of a job, a new job, the news media, music, the time of year, terminal illness, old age and even the weather. In the 1930s, a moody Hungarian song called Gloomy Sunday was said to have been the trigger for almost as many suicides in Europe and the U.S. as the Great Depression.2

The majority of firearm-related deaths that occur each year in the United States are suicides, not homicides. The methods employed by individuals to commit suicide vary over time and by culture.3 For example, supposedly "gunless" Europe has a suicide rate that equals or exceeds the combined American homicide and suicide rates.4 5 6 Worldwide, suicide rates vary from 1.66 per 100,000 persons in Kuwait to 40.0 in Estonia. Firearm suicide rates range from 0.02 in the Republic of Korea to 5.78 in Finland and 7.35 in the United States. The proportion of suicides committed with a firearm varies from 0.2% in Japan to 61% in the United States. The firearm suicide rate exceeds the non-firearm rate only in the United States.7

A discussion of suicide involves many issues.8 If the issue is firearms, the first question to be addressed is "Do firearms cause suicide?" If firearms do not cause suicide but are merely implements utilized to accomplish the act, implements for which others would be substituted if firearms were not available, then it can be said fairly that the use of firearms in suicide is not relevant to the debate over firearm laws, rules and regulations.9

The second question, which would follow a finding that firearms do cause suicide, is "Do restrictive firearm laws reduce suicide rates?" This question was addressed in the well-known 1975 study by Douglas R. Murray at the University of Wisconsin, "Handguns, Gun Control Laws and Firearm Violence." The study concluded that "it seems quite unlikely that the relative availability of handguns plays a significant part in explaining why some states have higher rates of acts of violence associated with firearms than others." The Murray study included data on homicide, aggravated assault, robbery and suicide.10 11

Some would suggest that the rate of suicide may indeed be higher among firearm owners than non-owners. Gun owners are notably self-reliant and exhibit a willingness to take definitive action when they believe it to be in their own self-interest. Such action may include ending their own life when the time is deemed appropriate. Such a hypothesis has been supported by Professor Gary Kleck in criticizing the 1992 study by Kellermann, et al. "The Presence and Accessibility of Firearms In the Homes of Adolescent Suicides." Kleck contends that "the study's main flaw is its failure to control for preexisting psychological differences between gun owners and non-owners."12

Members of the anti-gun public health community have written numerous articles that seek to blame an increase in suicide among young American males upon increased gun availability. They fail to tell their readers that while suicide among American males aged 15 to 24 increased 7.4% during 1980-1990, the increase in England was more than 10 times greater (78%)13, with car exhaust poisoning being the leading method of suicide in a nation where gun ownership is severely restricted.

Gun owners should be aware of basic concepts and available data on suicide and firearms in order to be able to counter anti-gun propaganda that appears in the media and elsewhere. "Suicide is a serious issue. It deserves serious, scholarly discussion, rather than use as a political football by unscrupulous propagandists grasping at any opportunity to make a case for their preordained agenda."14

1 Kates, Don B., "Gun Laws Around the World: Do They Work?" October 1997 American Guardian, page 48.

2 "One every twenty minutes." Medical World News, April 7, 1967.

3 For international data on suicide, see The United Nations Demographic Yearbook, published annually.

4 Kates, Don B., 1991. "Gun rights &-- one can't compare gun crimes in differing cultures." Handguns for Sport and Defense, May 14-

5. Also see "International Rise in Suicide" in Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Statistical Bulletin, 48:4-7.

6 A table with suicide rates from two different data sources appears on page 47 of the 25 April 1997 draft of the United Nations International Study on Firearm Regulation, prepared by the Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Division, United Nations Office at Vienna. For a commentary on this draft, see Krug, Alan S., "UN Study to Promote Outlawing Firearms" in the July 1997 Outdoor News, page 8.

7 Krug, E.G., Powell, K.E., and Dahlberg, L. 1996. Firearms Mortality in 36 countries. Centers for Disease Control/NCIPC, Atlanta.

8 For a recent update on empirical findings and theory in suicidology by 45 contributors, see "Assessment and prediction of suicide," edited by Ronald W. Maris, Alan L. Berman, John T. Maitsberger and Robert I. Yufit. Guilford Press, New York, 1992.

9 Several studies in the public health field have argued that suicide is linked to the presence of firearms in the home. These include (1) Rich, C. L. et al. 1990. Guns and suicide: possible effects of some specific legislation. American Journal of Psychiatry, 147:342-346; (2) Brent, D. A. et al. 1991. The presence and accessibility of firearms in the homes of adolescent suicides. Journal of American Medical Association, 266(2989-2985; and (3) Kellermann, A. L. et al. 1992. Suicide in the home in relationship to gun ownership. New England Journal of Medicine, 327:467-472. All have been subject to serious challenge by other researchers.

10 Murray, Douglas R. 1975. Handguns, gun control laws and firearm violence. Social Problems, 25(1):81-93.

11 A comment by David Lester of the Center for the Study of Suicide in Blackwood, NJ and Antoon A. Leenaars, published in the Canadian Journal of Criminology, argued that in the first eight years following the enactment of Canada's new restrictive firearm law in 1977, ". . . the firearms legislation in Canada in 1977 was followed by a decreasing rate of suicide by firearms and a decreasing percentage of suicides by firearms without there being any increase in suicide by all other methods." However, analysis of their data reveals that while the percentage of firearms utilized in suicides decreased relative to the benchmark calculated for the eight years preceding the law, the average annual suicide rate increased by 10.5 percent, from 4.27 per 100,000 population to 4.72. Thus, their conclusion does not seem to be supported by their data. See "Gun control and rates of firearms violence in Canada and the United States: A comment," Canadian Journal of Criminology, October 1994.

12 See the criticisms expressed by Kleck and others in the correspondence section of the December 24, 1992, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

13 Hawton, Keith, "By Their Own Young Hand," 304 British Medical Journal, 1000, 1992.

14 Kates, Don B., et al., "Guns and Public Health: Epidemic of Violence or Pandemic of Propaganda?," Tennessee Law Review, 1995. 62(3): 513-596.

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