Why Don't Gun Control Advocates Talk More About Suicides? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Dylan Matthews voxplains the topic of suicide by gunfire and compares guns to “pollutants in your house”:

A reader responds to the question posed in the previous note:

The most relevant question for efficacy of gun control as it relates to suicide, is whether or not decreased presence of guns (gun control) reduce just the firearm suicide rate, or whether they reduce the suicide rate overall. If it reduces the overall rate, you can make a serious argument for gun control as a public health measure in terms of suicide, but if it shifts suicide to another method other than guns, I think that the case would be weakened.

It is well known that most suicide attempts fail. From the data I've seen, it is somewhere between 25 and 33 attempts per suicide. At first thought, this would seem like that if you remove access to guns, you will get a substantially lower number of suicides, as suicide by firearm has a high rate of success. So the question is, if you remove access to firearms, do people go to less lethal avenues of suicide, or do they seek out equivalently lethal methods?  I could not find anything on this subject.

Overall though, the U.S does not have an especially high rate of suicide, and it has stayed relatively consistent since the 1960s. The rates in Australia—which has strict gun control—appear have gone down, but it seems to be more of a post 2000 phenomenon, rather than post 1996— the year the country’s buyback policy began:

World Health Organization

I’d love to see a good study on whether total suicides have gone down in the aftermath of serious gun control legislation, but I’ve yet to find it. The data seems to be pretty inconclusive, but I could certainly be missing a lot.

Drop us an email if you know of any data along these lines. A medical doctor questions gun control even further:

Hello! And thanks for the thread, which I’ve now been following for several days. I’m writing in response to one of your reader’s comments:

It is surprising just how little attention, from both gun control advocates and gun rights advocates, is paid to the fact that while the majority of Americans choose to own guns for personal safety and protection, their reasoning doesn’t match up with the reality of guns in America. This is the dismal trinity of firearms epidemiology:

1. Two-thirds of America’s firearms deaths are from suicide (source)

2. Mass shootings make up a terrifying, but ultimately tiny drop in the bucket of firearms deaths (source)

3. Guns are used for personal safety an incredibly small percent of the time (source)

This focus on fear of crime (even though crime is at historic lows) and buying firearms for protection is pervasive in NRA/firearms manufacturer marketing and rhetoric.

It’s a pleasant surprise to hear a voice for gun control eager to distinguish the large majority of gun-related deaths that are suicide. Much more frequently, the gun control narrative deliberately conflates suicides and homicides, because the tragedy of suicide doesn't trip the public’s fear reflex the way violent crime does. The handy articulation “gun violence” lets authors with agendas sensationalize the problem, making it seem both bigger and more closely tied to firearm prevalence. Kudos to your reader for making the very reasonable case (with which I disagree) that guns should be better controlled in part to prevent suicide.

Your reader points out that the people who would most benefit from prevented suicides are gun owners themselves. This is trivially true. It’s also an argument for leaving gun owners alone.

Suicide is a tragedy. It’s never been the legal equivalent of murder, and it’s troubling to contemplate treating it as equivalent for policy purposes. Nor is the gun control lobby driven by a general concern for suicide (no disrespect intended toward individuals who’ve come to their activism after seeing that tragedy). If suicide was the real problem, there are other, far less contentious methods of reduction, from putting Tylenol in blister packs to better funding emergency mental health services.

It’s worth noting that suicide by gun doesn’t correlate to high-capacity magazine or collapsible stocks or any of the other markers that seem to differentiate bad guns from tolerable guns in the liberal imagination (neither do murders, actually, but that's a separate point). Suicide by gun requires only that—a gun—and if you are talking about reducing suicides by gun, you are inevitably talking about taking away all guns—from grandpa’s hunting rifle to the small pistol your sister carries because she can’t afford to, or chooses not to, live in the nice neighborhood.

So, maybe we can talk about suicide reduction by taking guns away from people. But if we’re going to talk about that, let’s drop the pretense that the gun control lobby doesn’t want to remove all guns from private hands in America. Of course they do. It is entirely in keeping with their assumptions and goals.

Regarding your reader’s other points: Crime in the U.S. is, broadly, at historic lows. That includes homicide. That includes firearm homicide. So why is private gun ownership suddenly provoking a moral panic? Why are my guns suddenly a threat to our way of life?

If anything, the American experiment is proving decade over decade that private citizens really can be trusted with firearms, that the rule of law can flourish among armed people. We have hundreds of millions of firearms in the country, a minuscule number of which are employed in crimes.

And I'll note that if the only metric of success for firearm self defense is number of justifiable homicides, we might have a finger on the scales. And that no, I don't trust the wonks on the value of guns for self defense, or the journalists, having lived at times in their neighborhoods and worked alongside them, in milieus where the need for firearms was unthinkable and the idea that people could be comfortable and unafraid around a firearm was unfathomable.

That email leads to an interesting question for gun control advocates: What policy measures would you implement to specifically lower rates of suicide by gun? A waiting period before purchase, to allow someone to come out of a spontaneous, desperate moment of depression? Sophisticated gun locks that only allow the owner to use it? Preventing people with a history of mental illness or suicide attempts to purchase guns? Let me know if you have any thoughts along those lines.