This was raised in the comments on the gun posts several times, and I didn’t know it, so I looked into it:
“A lot of people, when they think about guns and violence—suicide is just kind of off the radar screen,” said Daniel Webster, the director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University. Webster added: “People think about the gun problem as something that someone else is going to do to them.”
At the heart of this argument is the idea that the vast majority of people who have committed suicide by shooting themselves would have stayed alive if they had not been easily able to pick up a gun. This can be a difficult premise to process. First, it goes against a common intuition about suicide: that someone who wants to end his or her life will find a way to do it by any means necessary. Second, it presents a destabilizing challenge to both sides of the gun control debate, which have traditionally drawn their emotional power from people’s fear of murder.
The figures are stark. One study found that in a group of adolescents in Pittsburgh who died by committing suicide, 72 percent lived in households with guns; among adolescents who attempted suicide but survived, that number was 37 percent. Another found that across the United States, people who committed suicide in a given year were 17 times as likely to have lived in homes with guns as people who did not
Suicide prevention might be an entry point into a better gun debate, because suicide prevention has always been considered a public health issue, not a gun issue. We’ve talked about how public health initiatives can actually change minds and behavior, sometimes in conjunction with regulation, sometimes not. One sees it in seat belt use and drunk driving, but there are also changes in “softer” areas, where there is less regulation. One that comes to mind for me is little kids, sun exposure and skin cancer. My husband spent his early childhood within walking distance of Long Island Sound, and his mother loves the beach. He’s fair-skinned with blue eyes. He burns. She doesn’t burn. She tans. He spent whole summers on the beach with his mother and he got a series of really bad sunburns. He and his brothers joke about it. They put it in the category of them bouncing around unbelted in the back seat of her station wagon. That would be socially unacceptable now, to allow a 5 year old to get seriously sunburned, repeatedly, even my teenage-parent clients are hip to the whole sunblock-hat ordeal for little kids in the summer, but it wasn’t then.
At a summit on gun violence held at Johns Hopkins this past week, Harvard professor Matthew Miller presented a comparison of people living in “high-gun states,” where there are firearms in approximately 50 percent of homes, with those living in “low-gun states,” where that number is around 15 percent. Looking at these two groups of people side by side, Miller showed that they had similar rates of depression and suicidal thoughts, as well as similar rates of suicide that did not involve firearms, like hanging and poisoning. But the number of people who died by shooting themselves was almost four times greater in the high-gun states. In total, there were almost twice as many suicides among people living in high-gun states as there were in low-gun states
In the public-health community, researchers have widely come to regard it as a basic truth that access to a gun makes it more likely that someone who wants to commit suicide actually manages to do so. A big part of the reason is simply the lethality of guns: Studies show that between 85 and 90 percent of people who shoot themselves die as a result, while the percentage of people who die using other means is vastly lower. Alan Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, points out that guns, unlike other methods, leave people no time to change their minds. They also require less preparation and planning, provided they’re accessible.
“When you ask people who’ve made attempts and survived,” Miller said, “even attempts that are life threatening and would have proved lethal [without emergency medical care], what they say is, ‘It was an impulsive act, and I’m glad that I’m alive.’”
One striking illustration of this principle can be seen in the experience of the Israeli Defense Forces, which saw a 40 percent drop in suicides after a new rule was introduced forbidding soldiers from taking their guns home with them over the weekend. Though some soldiers may have tried to kill themselves using some less lethal method instead, it appears that scores of lives were saved.