Amit Routh, the reader who wrote the email that started this discussion thread, replies to the two readers who responded:
Hi again! Thank you for the thread and to the other readers for making such excellent points. I appreciate The Atlantic taking up my lunch breaks like The Dish used to.
To the first reader: Yes, “the U.S. does not have an especially high suicide rate,” but suicide still makes up the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. (source). Firearms not only have the unfortunate distinction as the most commonly used means of suicide, but also the leading cause of intentional death overall (source).
As for the reader’s question of “if you remove access to firearms, do people go to less lethal avenues of suicide, or do they seek out equivalently lethal methods?,” research points to the former (source):
[T]here is now a large body of evidence suggesting that means restriction not only reduces suicides by that method but also reduces overall suicide rates. Means substitution, when it does occur, does not seem to overwhelm the benefits of means restriction. When a highly lethal method (e.g., firearms) is not easily available, the substituted method (e.g., drug overdose) may be far less lethal, thereby increasing chances for survival.
Moreover, every study that has looked at firearms access has found it is associated with increased suicide risk (source). That said, it’s not surprising that this reader reports having difficulty finding research on the public health impact of firearms. For nearly 20 years, the NRA has effectively banned the CDC from researching how firearms affect American morbidity and mortality (source). The chilling effect of the research ban and its resultant harm to science, to policy, and to all Americans cannot be understated. It would be akin to banning research funding into liver disease or diabetes for two decades.
Interestingly enough, Jack Dickey, the ex-congressman who led the charge on this research ban, eventually regretted and reversed his position: