Guns and Suicides

“Handgun Ownership Greatly Increases Suicide Risk,” write Heath Druzin and Jeremy Bernfeld. They summarize, “Researchers from Stanford University tracked more than 26 million people in California who did not own guns before Oct. 18, 2004. Just under 3%, or 676,425 people, became gun owners between Oct. 18, 2004, and Dec. 31, 2016. Nearly all were handguns. The risk of suicide in this group, researchers found, was about nine times higher than among non-gun owners. Nearly 18,000 people tracked in the study died by suicide. Roughly 7,000 of those deaths were by firearm suicide.”

But what is the actual causal chain here? The study (lead David M. Studdert) states, “The risk of suicide by firearm among handgun owners peaked immediately after the first acquisition, but 52% of all suicides by firearm among handgun owners occurred more than 1 year after acquisition.” The most reasonable interpretation of this is that some suicidal people buy a gun to kill themselves. This does not imply that, had these suicidal people not purchased a gun, they wouldn’t have committed suicide. There are many ways to kill yourself.

Here is another tidbit from the study: “A total of 676,425 cohort members acquired one or more handguns, and 1,457,981 died; 17,894 died by suicide, of which 6691 were suicides by firearm.” In other words, almost no one who owned a gun committed suicide. And most people who committed suicide did so by means other than a gun.

An obviously stupid conclusion to draw would be, “Owning a handgun causes a normal person to be more suicidal.” Most people simply are not suicidal, and owning a gun, or a rope, or sleeping pills, or whatever, does not make them suicidal.

That said, it’s reasonable to think that, among the small subset of the population that is suicidal, owning a gun increases the risk of suicide. The obvious solution to that is to expand help for suicidal people.

Here is an analogy. Let’s say that we found that purchasing certain sorts of books or magazines, or reading certain sorts of web pages, made some people more suicidal. (I suspect this is actually the case.) Would the reasonable approach be to censor that material for all people or to get help for the few people who need it?


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