What Would a PSA on Gun Suicide Look Like?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

That’s the question I’m left with following this reader’s email:

Guns are used a lot for impulsive suicide, and assuming you believe reducing impulsive suicide is a good thing, then it would make sense to reduce the guns that are available for people who might impulsively commit suicide. However, it does not follow, as several pro-gun readers suggest, that this means confiscating guns or denying legally barring potential suicides from getting guns.

Public health programs can work through information dissemination and suasion. Right now, many people believe they (and their families) are safer with a gun in their house than without a gun. My reading of the data is that for many, probably most people, this is simply not true—that the possible safety benefit of having a gun available is far outweighed by the risk of suicide or accident.

Gun owners don’t like to hear that, perhaps because they believe they can “handle it,” they can manage the risks of gun ownership and get only the safety upside. People also used to believe they could handle drinking and driving. People also used to believe they could protect their children by having them ride in their laps in cars. Some people still believe they can protect their children from disease through means other than vaccinations.

Those misconceptions have been challenged and in many cases eliminated through better information. The public health challenge is to come up with a way to convince people the presence of guns make them less, not more, safe.

If you’ve seen any persuasive ad campaigns or other informational efforts along those lines, please let me know.