[Ed: This was first published on Ammoland May 20, and is minimally edited to repost here with permission. It is the best discussion of the (non-)relationship of suicide rates with the prevalence of private firearm ownership I have seen, including my own. Kudos to Dean Weingarten! The only additional note from this psychiatrist is that while the final act may happen on impulse, nearly all suicides are pondered for some time, so choice of method becomes part of a plan well before the impulse to act overwhelms one.]
It is only the last decade or two when those who want a disarmed population in the West have started to stress “suicide” as a reason for disarming the population. The early pushes for population disarmament were predicated on the excuse of reducing violent crime, particularly homicides. The actual motivation had nothing to do with crime. The original motivation was to reduce armed rivals. In New York, to reduce armed resistance to organized crime, particularly the Tammany Gang. In England, to reduce armed support for a potential revolution. Originally, the push was to eliminate handguns from almost all the population. There was some talk of accidents, but suicides were almost never mentioned.
As gun control policies were implemented in various countries, it became clear violent crime and homicides were not reduced by gun control. The push to ban handguns in the United States had failed, and those pushing for citizen disarmament moved on to semi-automatic rifles. The famous quote by Josh Sugarman of the Violence Policy Center was near the start of this phase. This push did not depend on homicide or violent crime for its existence. Semi-automatic rifles are seldom used in violent crime. Rather it is the similarity in appearance to military firearms which is used, under the pretext that military firearms are not useful to the ordinary citizen, and most citizens are not familiar with them. From the Violence Policy Center, 1988:
“. . . handgun restriction is simply not viewed as a priority. Assault weapons—just like armor-piercing bullets, machine guns, and plastic firearms—are a new topic. The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons. In addition, few people can envision a practical use for these weapons.“
The homicide rate topped out in 1993. As more and more handguns and semi-automatic firearms were sold in the United States, and more and more people obtained carry permits and used them, the homicide rate dropped in half. During the same period, fatal firearm accident rates fell to record lows.
What to do? The idea that “more guns = more homicide” had been demolished. Those pushing for population disarmament created a new pretext. As the homicide rate had dropped, the suicide rate had risen. An Orwellian term was created. “Gun violence”. “Gun violence” was defined as all deaths associated with guns; homicides, whether justified or not; legal intervention, or not; suicides, and accidents. Most people think of “gun violence” as homicides. Over two-thirds are suicides. Only a tiny amount of fatalities with guns are accidental. While the suicide rate had risen, the percentage of suicides with guns had fallen.
Intuitively, people do not think restrictive legislation on guns will reduce suicide. There are many alternatives out there. George Orwell, in 1984, in the last page of PART ONE, foresaw the dystopian vision in which control over guns would be claimed to reduce suicide.
“It was at night that they came for you, always at night. The proper thing was to kill yourself before they got you. Undoubtedly some people did so. Many of the disappearances were actually suicides. But it needed desperate courage to kill yourself in a world where firearms, or any quick and certain poison, were completely unprocurable.“
George Orwell (Eric Blair) was a socialist. For all his brilliant understanding of the totalitarian mindset, Orwell did not consider how easy it is to commit suicide.
Most of the theory predicting a reduction of suicides is based on the concept that suicide ideation is temporary, and access to firearms provides a unique ability to commit suicide quickly and decisively. If a person can survive the temporary desire for suicide, the theory is, they will not commit suicide.
There are several problems with the theory. The first is that alternate quick and decisive methods of suicide are easily available. Hanging is almost as quick, easy, and decisive. In a word with electrical appliances, wire, clothesline and rope, hanging has been the substitution method of choice in Australia. Quick access to suicide does not depend on firearms.
However, it should be noted that different studies produce different results of the fatality of different methods. For instance, JJ Card2 estimated the lethality of suicide by guns as only 91.6% effective, and Farberow and Shneidman3 had it as low as 84.7%. The Hawaii Department of Health (1990) had it even lower at 73%. The same studies showed the effectiveness of hanging to vary between 77% and 88%.
The second is that the time-scale of suicide ideation varies considerably. Survivors of suicide attempts will naturally be biased toward those who are less motivated and determined to commit suicide.
A third is that suicide rates around the world have no correlation with access to firearms. The highest suicide rates are in countries with very few firearms.
How can the theory that suicide rates will be reduced, if access to firearms is highly restricted, be tested?
It has been tested in the real world. When more restrictions were put on access to guns, the overall suicide rate was not affected.
The suicide rate did not go down in Australia, with some of the most severe and restrictive gun laws, drastically and dramatically implemented in 1996-1997.
As more restrictive laws on access to guns have been implemented in California, there has been a clear substitution effect. From the large study comparing gun show regulation in California versus Texas:
“The results of our study generally indicate that gun shows do not have substantial impacts on either gun homicides or suicides. While there is some evidence of statistically significant effects in both California and Texas, these effects are relatively modest in size. For example, our findings indicate that in the average year from 1994 to 2004, there are four additional gun suicides in the entire state of California resulting from the 102 gun shows occurring in the average year. Moreover, this increase is offset entirely by an almost identical decline in the number of non-gun suicides, suggesting that gun shows influence the method but not the number of suicides. We find no evidence to suggest that gun shows increased the number of homicides in California during our study period.“
The study found a statistically significant effect that relatively unregulated gun shows in Texas decreased gun homicides by 16 per year.
When the Brady law was implemented in 1994, scholars in favor of restricting guns did a rigorous study of homicide and suicide rates, comparing states which already had background checks to those where they were recently required by the new law. From the abstract by Cook and Ludwig:
“Based on the assumption that the greatest reductions in fatal violence would be within states that were required to institute waiting periods and background checks, implementation of the Brady Act appears to have been associated with reductions in the firearm suicide rate for persons aged 55 years or older but not with reductions in homicide rates or overall suicide rates.“
When Canada instituted strict new gun control laws, there was no significant effect on suicide rates. From Mauser, 2007, p. 38:
“While some public-health researchers claim that the unique deadliness of ﬁrearms means that substitution eﬀects are not important in suicide [e.g. Gabor,1994], this is belied by the empirical evidence. Unfortunately, the public-health literature generally ignores the relevant criminological research. As shown above, the evidence is consistent with strong substitution eﬀects. As seen in ﬁgure 1, as ﬁrearm suicides declined over the past decade, hanging suicides increased in Canada . . . “
In a large study from 2018 on the changes in firearms laws in California, found no effect on homicide rates or suicide rates. The study looked at changes in comprehensive background checks (CBC) and the addition to the prohibited person list of those with violent misdemeanors (MVP).
“CBC and MVP policies were not associated with changes in firearm suicide or homicide. Incomplete and missing records for background checks, incomplete compliance and enforcement, and narrowly constructed prohibitions may be among the reasons for these null findings.“
An Rand corporation update in 2020 on gun control policies, surveying studies of gun control policies, downgraded the effects of both background checks on suicides and violent crime. From NSSF:
“There are a couple of notable changes from the first edition of the report. For example, the authors concluded in 2018 that there was “limited evidence” that background checks decreased total suicides and “moderate evidence” they decreased firearm suicides. Upon re-evaluating the earlier reports and considering additional studies, the new, downgraded conclusion is that there is “inconclusive evidence” for either. The same downgrade was found for the impact of background checks on violent crime.“
Most of the controls being pushed hardest by those who desire a disarmed population, would have no effect on suicide.
Reducing magazine capacity? Only one shot is needed.
Banning semi-automatic guns? Only one shot is needed.
Restricting the carry of guns? Suicides are generally conducted in private.
Suicide is being used as an ideological “hook” to support the policy choices of those who want a disarmed population. Facts matter little to those with an agenda.
In nations where violence of any kind is very low, such as in Switzerland, those who desire a disarmed population hang their desire on the very rare events of a few suicide or homicides in a year. The fact that these are very rare never bothers them.
When you actively dislike the idea of firearms in any hands outside of government and see no positive function for firearms in private hands, you do not see any cost from disarming the population by force. With zero perceived costs to ban guns, the cost/benefit ratio is infinite with a tiny perceived benefit.
This is an insane way to view the world. People would not own firearms if they did not perceive benefits. Hundreds of years of history would not show those with firearms ruling those without.
In America, suicides with guns are common because guns are common. Guns are common because people find guns to be useful for numerous purposes. Large numbers of people actively value guns, as seen by the sales figures.
There is no persuasive evidence the overall suicide rate would decrease with more restrictions on gun ownership.
Focusing on suicide with guns is simply another way to define a social problem as a gun problem. It is a way to define a solution to fit a desired policy.
It is not an honest way to deal with social problems and policy decisions.
— Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of Constitutional Carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering, and retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.