gun control and suicide

18 April, 2007

Recent gun-related events virtually ensure an encore of one of America’s traditional performance art pieces in response to tragedy: Guns Don’t Kill People, Teenagers Kill People (introducing…the 2008 Presidential candidates!). Well, at least it will be marginally more informed than will the next potential performance, Video Games Made Him Do It. (And let’s hope we can avoid Who Let Them In Here, Anyway? especially since Geraldo and Bill O’Reilly knocked that one out of the park so recently.)

Well, I got no particular knowledge about all those phases, but I do have a gun control-related angle.

US residents of all ages and both sexes are more likely to die from suicide when they live in areas where more households contain firearms. A positive and significant association exists between levels of household firearm ownership and rates of firearm and overall suicide; rates of nonfirearm suicide were not associated with levels of household firearm ownership…the availability of lethal means increases the rate of completed suicide.

The finding got a big yawn around my lab, but then maybe the common wisdom about suicide isn’t as well known in the blogosphere as it is here in a lab full of psychiatric researchers. Commence lecture!

  1. Suicide kills over 30,000 Americans a year. (More statistics can be found here.)
  2. You may wonder why I use the passive voice up there, don’t people do the killing? Yeah: depressed people. You can’t talk about suicide without reference to depression/mental illness, and the decisions people make when depressed are (duh) not necessarily the ones they’d make when healthy.
  3. To commit suicide is usually an impulsive decision. As a result it’s a common cause of death in young males.
  4. The idea to attempt suicide is more viral than you’d think: it spreads like a meme. When a suicide is reported, there are often local methodological copycats (educating police forces and newspaper editors NOT to publicize details can cut down on this substantially). A particularly awful example of how fucked up this can get is the story of Golden Gate Bridge suicides, which I can’t even reread, it’s so depressingly infuriating.
  5. Choice of method is opportunistic. (See above article.)
  6. People’s estimates about a method’s lethality are not accurate. This has a lot of implications, among them the fact that women are more likely to attempt, but men are more likely to succeed. In large part this is because women use less lethal methods (pills) than men do (guns).*

The author of the study puts it simply: “In a nation where more than half of all suicides are gun suicides and where more than one in three homes have firearms, one cannot talk about suicide without talking about guns.”

Now, it’d be a helluva public health measure to void a constitutional amendment just to prevent suicide. I’m not advocating this as why you should support gun control, I’m not completely on any particular side of the issue. Just keep in mind, when the NRA types get rabid about their purported “rights,” that lots of these people have depressed kids at home who know where the ammo is. What are the 2nd amendment absolutists doing to prevent having to pry their own guns from their child’s cold, dead hands?


*Because pills are such an ineffective way to commit suicide, there is a sexist misperception out there that women (who tend to use pills) intend suicide less seriously, and are just doing so as a “cry for help” or to get attention. But there is no correlation between lethality and seriousness: since suicides are so often impulsive and opportunistic, seriousness is hard to judge from the outside, easy to lie about from the inside, and impossible to determine for the successful. Nonlethal attempts are judged as less serious than lethal suicides because all lethal suicides appear seriously meant, whether they were or not.


5 Responses to “gun control and suicide”

  1. Momb Says:

    OK. Two thoughts, unrelated. First,one of the first VT news reports I heard (sorry, I don’t remember who) opined that we in America live in a free society and an occasional isolated massacre is the price we pay. When we tire of paying the price…

    Second, how many failed attempts with pills are dry runs? It’s a bit harder to do a dry run with a bullet. Maybe it’s a misguided attempt to see how the loved ones react; a test to see how well planned it was–too unpleasant–too uneffective?

    I dunno…it’s all just too depressing.

  2. Mick Says:

    Sadly, the correlation with gun control and suicide doesn’t flow on to Australia where we have a very high rate of youth suicide.

    Trends seem to point largely to it occuring in country areas and particularly with young gay males.

    Very sad state of affairs when trends point to the lack of tolerance and understanding.

    I see gun control as more a means of stopping the flow that the US seems to have of mass public shootings. It astounded me to see the amount of news reports on public shootings while I was in the US last year.

  3. For those of us who are not psychiatric researches this is interesting stuff. I always thought that copycat suicides were folklore… Is suicide mainly a phenomenon of developed societies? I’m interested to know.

  4. Peter Says:

    Unrelated to VT, I was glancing at your latest pictures. I’m glad you were able to get to the voting rights rally. Both of my sons got sick, so we weren’t able to get down there…

  5. Eric B Says:

    “Golden Gate Bridge suicides”

    … It’s raining men? (Sorry!)

    It is all quite depressing.

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