Reporter's Notebook

The Impact of Guns on Suicide
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Readers discuss and debate the issue. To join in, email

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What Would a PSA on Gun Suicide Look Like? Cont'd

Earlier I asked if readers knew of any notable campaigns to raise awareness over the increased rate of suicide among those with access to guns. From a reader at the Kansas Suicide Prevention Resource Center:

We developed and ran a Facebook ad on just that [seen above]. The VA also developed a wonderful video PSA on gun safety and suicide prevention.

That two-minute PSA, however, only briefly touches on suicide. And the following example from another reader also doesn’t focus on suicide, but it’s notable nonetheless:

Growing up in Germany with Kinder surprise eggs (totally one of the best parts of my childhood, and still very appreciated today) and the absence of guns, I felt the need to share the most persuasive campaign against guns, in my humble opinion:

To me, it just illustrates how ridiculous America is when it comes to guns. I have to admit that, when I went to the United States for the first time for a semester abroad, I was so scared of “everyone having a gun” (it is, of course, a stereotype, but a powerful one) that I actually took a shooting class before. It might be a foreigner kind of thing to do, but might also just shows that guns might actually just make things worse. Because honestly, I wouldn’t want to ever meet myself with a gun; I still don’t have a clue.

Another reader takes the discussion in a different direction:

What causes the most problems is depriving suicidal people of a SAFE, RELIABLE way to end their lives. Many are crippled by unreliable methods. Others jump from buildings, sometimes hitting innocent bystanders. Nembutal is a drug that’s ideal for suicide. Why in the hell is it now illegal?! Which arrogant, moralistic assholes made this decision for all of the rest of us?

I am not suicidal, but I have known people with terminal conditions who would have liked to gracefully exit. Instead, they were forced to endure tortuous pain because their doctors could not legally help them.

A previous reader thread on voluntary euthanasia here. Meanwhile, another reader responds to our note from this morning asking, “Could keeping depressed people from guns do more harm than good?”

A reader makes several great points along those lines:

You asked about policy measures that could be implemented to help lower rates of gun suicides, in particular whether people with mental illness or a history of suicide should be banned from purchasing firearms. I think that’s an extremely problematic idea for a number of reasons.

One major issue is something the FAA learned re: depression in pilots [link, link]. If you ban people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness from owning guns, I suspect what you’ll end up with is a bunch of gun owners with mental illness that they don’t get treated because they know if they do they’ll be barred from owning and/or purchasing firearms. Discouraging depressed and/or suicidal gun owners from getting help is presumably the opposite of what we want.  

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.

Not so much, says reader Jared LeBrun:

You asked what gun control advocates should propose to lower rates of suicides by firearms nationally, and for that I don’t have a clear answer. But perhaps a sensible start would be to ensure firearms are not allowed on campus, especially in dorms.

I’m a college student here at the University of Texas at Austin. The school has been the center of Texas’ recent firearm’s law that will allow concealed carry in most buildings across campus, with numerous planned protests and counter-protests. Our attorney general, Ken Paxton, among others, has called for guns to be allowed into college dormitories.

However, the topic of suicide seems to be entirely missing from this debate.

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:

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:

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: