Short answer: No.
But you wouldn’t know that from the breathless media coverage of a recent study from the Boston University and Harvard’s T.C. Chan’s Schools of Public Health. “Household Gun Ownership and Youth Suicide Rates at the State Level, 2005–2015” was published online by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine January 17.
Suicide is a complex problem. There are bound to be more firearms suicides in households that don’t lock up their guns, or have none at all. But this does not mean firearms cause suicide any more than vehicles cause single-car crashes (a category that probably includes significant numbers of unprovable suicides). And there are more drowning deaths in unmonitored bodies of water than when lifeguards are present.
However—and this is the big one—there is no evidence yet that controlling the availability of firearms is at all associated with changes in overall suicide rates. This is the most important finding about firearms and suicides. It suggests that, despite individual cases of preventable shooting deaths, on a population basis as many people will commit suicide by other means when one becomes less accessible. International suicide studies confirm that the presence or absence of firearms among civilians is unrelated to the rate of suicide in various countries, which appears primarily to be culturally determined.
There are a couple of things that make one presumptively question this study’s findings. While correlating household firearm ownership with adolescent firearm suicide, the authors found no correlation with substance or alcohol abuse. This is a serious, well documented risk factor in all suicides, although it may be less so in the earlier ages of their chosen cohort.
They also found no difference in households whether guns were known to be locked up or not. They point themselves to previous work that documents that this makes a difference, as of course it would.
Two things particularly make this study deceptive and therefore a red herring for the question posed.
First, the ages of “Youth” chosen range from 10-19 years old. These ages cannot fairly be considered the same kind of “youth” because they do not reflect the same sorts of risks. The average 10 year old can be far less responsible for his safety than the average 19 year old. A 10 year old still requires day-to-day monitoring that should be unnecessary and would be inappropriate for the 19 y/o, who is legally and essentially an adult. Most locked storage will prevent a 10 year old’s access. Most would not forestall a determined 19 year old.
The big problem with firearms used in suicide is when they are grabbed on impulse or at the final, determined moment—then there is usually no rescue possible (unlike with some, not all, other modes of self-harm). The 10 year old is more impulsive, likely with poorer understanding of the finality of his action. The 19 year old should understand what death means and is more likely to seek it intentionally, following a set plan.
Second, the authors counted gun ownership only as of 2004, while looking at suicide rates from 2005 through 2015, and basically averaging them. Obviously, changes in gun ownership rates from 2004 through 2015 should be accounted for in examining the relationship of these chronologically concurrent factors.
The mainstream media perspective on gun ownership, which one suspects would be part of such research’s DNA, says that gun ownership by household has declined from about 43% in 2004 to about 40% in 2015. Another survey suggests that household gun ownership rates have been roughly stable from 2004-2015.
But what can they make of firearm suicide rates increasing, while the number of households with guns decreases or doesn’t change? Perhaps issues about safe storage and poor judgment could be implicated, but with the increasing focus on these subjects in both pro- and anti-gun circles, it’s hard to believe these factors are generally worsening.
Of course, that “mainstream” perspective is nonsense. Gun ownership nationwide is increasing dramatically every year. Federal databases say that the number of guns per American (while the population simultaneously grows) increased from about 1.2 per person in 2004 to about 1.4 in 2015. That’s an increase of 17%, if that were the whole picture.
But we know that many gun owners now decline to reveal gun ownership to anonymous surveyors. And that millions of New York, Connecticut and New Jersey residents have refused to turn themselves in for retaining firearms and accessories that those states have made illegal in recent years. Gun owners are going to ground in order to preserve their right to these tools of liberty.
Some portion of the many millions of background checks every year (covering 85% or more of all firearm purchases) are for new gun owners purchasing firearms. We can more directly judge individual handgun ownership by noting the enormous increase in concealed carry permits from 2007 (4.6 million) to 2018 (17.25 million)—even with the increasing prevalence of constitutional carry in states that do not require permits. While that is not 2004 to 2015, it establishes a rate of increase in individual handgun ownership of more than 25% per year!
According to the CDC, overall suicides for ages 10-19 years (mostly with handguns) increased from about 5/100,000 in 2004 to about 6/100,000 in 2015, about 20%. The firearms suicide rate for these ages increased from about 2.1/100,000 to about 2.4/100,000, or about 14%. During this time, suffocation (including hanging) became the leading method for this age group’s suicide; it used to be only half the number of suicides using firearms.
So, how can these enormous increases in household (or individual, for that matter) gun ownership be responsible for such relatively tiny increase in the rate of any suicides? And how, if firearms suicide is the worry, can it be rising slower than suicide by all methods?
We know a lot that’s true about the relationship of legal gun ownership and crime, violence, suicide, etc. We know that more guns equals less crime, or at least does not increase it. We know that universal background checks do not change rates of violence or suicide. We know that reducing restrictive concealed carry legislation does not increase homicide or other violent crime rates. We know that far more violence, death and injuries are prevented by civilian gun use than actually occur. We know that American gun ownership does not affect overall suicide rates.
Now we know that it is not a significant factor in shifting firearm suicide rates. In fact, if you looked at the charts mentioned above, you’ll see there was a dip in adolescent firearm suicides (and their suicides overall) during the mid-2000’s while gun ownership was consistently growing. The only correlation to be found is that firearm suicides generally parallel suicides by all methods.
Are we responsible for what happens with our guns? Of course—and that means keeping them out of the hands of youth until we are sure they are properly trained and demonstrate maturity and competence. We will stop preventable firearm suicides by our adolescent children and their visitors that way.
Could any public policy legislation prevent or reduce firearm suicides on the whole in this age group? Of course not.
Will this kind of research continue to be published, despite its meaninglessness? Certainly, because it keeps fanning the fires of hoplophobia. It’s for the kids, after all, and if we save just one . . .
Be sure to check our list of all the ways that researchers prejudice their findings according to their agendas: “Reading ‘Gun Violence’ Research Critically”. Maybe you can pick out the several ways the Boston public health cabal did so here. And for fun and personal profit, read Dr. Przebinda’s Spuriouser and Spuriouser and look at Spurious Correlations.
Correlation does not equal causation. Certainly not when conflating America’s civilian gun ownership boom with adolescent firearm suicides.
— DRGO Editor Robert B. Young, MD is a psychiatrist practicing in Pittsford, NY, an associate clinical professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, and a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.