Gun Control and Suicide Prevention

Notes left for victims of suicide on a message board at a suicide prevention event in Cincinnati. Guns are the most common suicide method. Credit: John Minchillo/Associated Press

Gun Violence and America

America has a gun problem incomparable to anywhere else in the world. In this country, the right to bear arms is constitutionally protected, a right that is found nowhere else except Mexico and Guatemala. Gun control has become a hot-button topic in our society with proponents from both sides of the aisle advocating passionately for their respective points of view. However, for all the attention it has received, significant legislative action has yet to be taken by Congress.

Preventing homicide has always been the main emphasis dominating the gun control debate. This is caused by a number of factors including media coverage, the focus of the debaters, and perceived importance. What is often forgotten, however, is the potential to prevent suicides through gun control.

Firearm Suicides

America has always lagged behind other equally developed countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia in gun control laws. Consequently, America has had significantly higher rates of both firearm homicides and suicide by firearm. The below graph shows the number of gun deaths in America over the years by suicides and homicides. Suicides make up significantly more of guns deaths than homicides, so if we want to save lives, more focus should be given suicides. 

Does Legislation Affect Suicide?

In light of these discouraging statistics, one naturally looks for a solution. In our current rhetoric, much attention is paid to gun control and creating effective legislation to combat these problems. However, can legislation help deter suicides?

Turning our attention internationally, we can see that other countries have managed to successfully do this. Australia, in particular, has seen encouraging results after passing their sweeping gun control legislation in the 90s. Since introducing these laws, rates of suicide by firearm have substantially decreased. 

In order to investigate this in America, the below plot has been created using data from the Giffords Law Center. On the x-axis, there is a gun law strength ranking for each state that has been calculated by seeing if states have no, partial, or strong laws for background checks, child access prevention, concealed carry permit, domestic violence, extreme risk protection order, and military-style weapons. California is ranked number one while Mississippi is ranked 50th. On the y-axis is the percentage of all suicides in each state where firearms were the cause of death.

The effect of stronger gun laws and fewer suicides by firearms are somewhat correlated. The percentage of suicides by firearms in states with some of the weakest gun laws have about 3 times the rate than states with strongest laws. However, a lot of the progress that could have been made by stricter laws is held back loose gun laws nationwide. For example, if someone who lives in Chicago cannot get a gun, or is delayed from getting a gun, due to their fairly strict laws, they can simply drive for an hour to Indiana, a state with significantly looser regulations.

Firearm Suicide Fatality

However, how much good does lowering gun suicides even do? For starters, attempted suicides by firearm have the greatest fatality rate, as evidenced by the below chart. This has been made with data from the National Institute of Health. The statistics were extrapolated from 10,892 suicides and 57,439 attempted suicides among hospital admitted individuals in 8 states, as well as 6,219 attempted suicides among individuals released from emergency rooms in 2 states.

Firearm suicide attempts had an 83% fatality rate, while other methods such as jumping had a 35% fatality rate and poison ingestion and cutting had 1.5% and 1.2% respectively. It is important to note that poison ingestion and firearms were the two most common methods. Therefore, when people considering suicide cannot obtain a firearm, they have a significantly lower chance of dying.

Saving Lives 

This is where the importance of gun laws comes into play. Just delaying a suicide attempt can save lives. Research shows that suicide is a spontaneous decision with little longevity- it is made in a crisis moment that will inevitably pass. As explained by Jill Harkavy-Friedman from the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, “[I]f we keep the method of suicide away from a person when they consider it, at that moment they will not switch to another method. It doesn’t mean they never will. But at that moment, their thinking is very inflexible and rigid. So it’s not like they say, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to work. I’m going to try something else.’ They generally can’t adjust their thinking, and they don’t switch methods.” If people cannot get a gun at the moment, they have a far lower chance of dying.

Other studies support this reasoning. An Israeli study found that after their army stopped letting soldiers take their guns home over the weekend, suicides dropped by 40%. Moreover, 9 out of 10 people who attempt suicide do not ultimately die by suicide.

By lowering the suicide rate of the most lethal method, the overall suicide rate would drop as well, as the fatality of attempts would be lowered. While opposers of this concept would say that after taking firearms out of the picture other methods of suicide methods would rise, the reality is that lowering the fatality of suicide attempts also lowers the overall suicide rate, ultimately saving more lives.

[If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.]

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