I’m a respecter of the Second Amendment, its role in America’s revolution and founding, its cultural and historical meaning across a newly conquered continent where the rule of law did not exist for vast areas for long periods of time. And I’m basically for much of the relatively obvious stuff we can now do: end the gun show loophole, increase resources to the ATF, ban some magazines and assault weapons, take the NRA down a few notches, etc.
But one thing about the victims of guns does tend to get lost: the clear majority of deaths by gun are suicides. Among the over-20s, 60 percent of gun deaths are from suicides, compared with 37 percent for homicides.
Maybe I should have known this, but it came as a surprise. The majority of gun deaths in America are self-inflicted. Some pro-life Catholics have reached the conclusion that murder and suicide are not Christian values and that preventing them if we can by gun control is a Christian duty. I think the argument is much more complex when it comes to homicide – and, given the ubiquity of guns in America, I can see the argument that widespread gun-ownership for self-defense can actually protect life by deterring crime. I can also see the argument that owning a gun may help you defend the lives of your own family if attacked – although its roots in Jesus’ teachings are precisely zero.
But what if high levels of gun ownership make death in your own family more likely? Is there evidence that high gun ownership is related to higher levels of suicide? There is. A study of seven New England Northeastern states (pdf) with varying gun laws and suicide rates came to this conclusion:
The strong and positive correlation between firearm prevalence and suicide was accounted for by substantially elevated firearm suicide rates in states with higher levels of firearm ownership. This association held for the population as a whole and for every age group. By contrast, aggregate rates of nonfirearm suicides in states with higher firearm ownership did not differ across the seven states.
One key reason is that of all methods of suicide, guns are by far the most effective in actually killing you:
Of all suicide attempts, suicide by firearm accounted for only 5%, while poisoning/cutting/piercing accounted for 85%. However, the fatality rate for attempts varies wildly. Overall, 13% of all attempts were successful, while 91% of gun attempts were successful and only 3% of the poisoning/cutting/piercing attempts were fatal. Suffocation/hanging (6% of all attempts) was successful 80% of the time.
A bigger follow-up study came to the same conclusion:
Almost twice as many individuals completed suicide in the 15 states with the highest levels of household firearm ownership (14,809) compared with the 6 states with the lowest levels of household firearm ownership (8,052). For each age group and for both sexes, there were close to twice as many suicide victims in the high-gun prevalence states, a finding that was driven by differences in firearm suicides (i.e., nonfirearm suicides differed little). Overall, people living in high-gun states were 3.8 times more likely to kill themselves with firearms.
It seems to me that this is one piece of evidence that having fewer guns in American houses would lead to far fewer successful suicide attempts. As the authors note:
If 1 in 10 individuals who attempted suicide with firearms in 2002 were to have attempted with drugs instead, the number of suicides in the United States would decrease by approximately 1,700 suicides per year.
That’s a lot of life. It’s worth recalling too how many veterans have killed themselves with their own guns:
Veterans commit suicide at a rate that is twice the national average. In fact, the annual military death toll from suicides has for several years exceeded the number killed on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
(Photo: A Boston Police officer was one of the pallbearers who helped carry the cremated remains of Hamilton police officer Kenneth Nagy at a funeral mass held at St. James Roman Catholic Church. Nagy committed suicide after a shooting in Beverly of a Beverly police officer who worked with his wife. By John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.)