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

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

A reader, Amit Routh, pivots from the debate over the contemporary relevance of the Second Amendment:

Thanks for the hard work curating such an excellent discussion!

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:

  • two-thirds of America’s firearms deaths are from suicide (source)
  • mass shootings make up a terrifying, but ultimately tiny drop in the bucket of firearms deaths (source)
  • 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 brings to mind old advertisements from tobacco companies touting the clinical benefits of smoking cigarettes.

The tragic irony of the Australian model for gun control being a nonstarter in America is that the group it would most benefit would be the gun owners who most strongly oppose it:

The Australian study found that buying back 3,500 guns per 100,000 people correlated with up to a 50 percent drop in firearm homicides, and a 74 percent drop in gun suicides. As Vox’s Dylan Matthews noted, the drop in homicides wasn’t statistically significant. But the drop in suicides most definitely was — and the results are striking.

There is no public health intervention out there that could lead to a similar drop in suicides. Despite this, I rarely see gun control advocates focus on this dismal trinity. So much effort is spent on mass shootings and “scary” rifles, while suicide with handguns are the far more deadly, if banal, evil.