Power Tool: Suicides Don’t Count

In response to another in a long line of studies showing that higher rates of gun ownership correlate to higher rates of gun death, Power Tool John Hinderacker responds,

But what jumps out at you when you read Fleegler’s article is that the decrease in fatalities that he documents relates almost exclusively to suicides. What his study really shows is that strict gun laws have little or no impact on gun homicides.

See, only homicides count. Suicides, accidents, all the times small children take Dad’s loaded gun out of the night stand and shoot themselves, those don’t count as problems. Only homicides are problems.

My responses: First, it’s common to dismiss suicides in gun violence statistics because it is assumed that if people didn’t have guns, they would just find some other way to kill themselves. And that’s logical. But data say otherwise. The data show that where there are more guns, there are more suicides.

There are several reasons for this, the first one being that other methods are less reliable. People don’t take enough pills, or they are found and revived. It is speculated that some suicides by firearm are impulsive, spur-of-the moment actions; other suicide methods require some planning. It’s also noted that suicide rates are higher in rural than in urban areas, and rural areas also tend to have higher rates of gun ownership. Or maybe a few of those suicides weren’t suicides. Many things are possible.

However it happens, I find the attitude that suicide deaths don’t count as a factor in gun violence to be, well, cold. Where there is someone still alive who wouldn’t be alive if he had access to a gun, that counts.

But moving on — The Power Tool’s headline is “NEW STUDY FINDS FIREARMS LAWS DO NOTHING TO PREVENT HOMICIDES.” We could easily turn that around and say “NEW STUDY FINDS INCREASED GUN OWNERSHIP DOES NOTHING TO PREVENT HOMICIDES.” One of the things the absolutists keep saying is that arming society prevents violent crime, because criminals fear “good guy” citizens with guns. We’re told over and over that millions of Americans have defended themselves with guns; that if citizens cannot carry weapons everywhere they go they risk becoming victims; that “an armed society is a polite society”; that more guns equals less crime.

And I’ve been saying for years that these claims are hooey. You can easily dig up data going back years on which cities/states have the highest and lowest rates of homicide and assaults in the U.S., and there is no clear and consistent correlation between violent crime rates and gun laws in those places. Glad to see the Tool agrees with me.

A big reason for the lack of correlation, of course, is that lax gun purchasing laws in some states put a big hole in the effectiveness of gun laws in other states. It’s just way too easy to legally purchase firearms in the Southeast and re-sell them on a black market in the Northeast. It’s long been known that most guns used in violent crimes in New York were purchased legally in the South, primarily Virginia. There’s every reason to think that some national regulation on firearm purchasing would dry up some of this supply, and then we might see a stronger correlation between gun laws and violent gun crime.

And I also keep reminding people that accidents can kill you just as dead as crime. The absolutists keep bringing the conversation back to gun crime, as if accidents and suicides don’t count, because as long as the argument is about scary bad people who are about to break into your house and kill you, they feel they win the argument.

See also Prairie Weather.

29 thoughts on “Power Tool: Suicides Don’t Count

  1. For Conservatives and Republicans, the only thing they have left is “framing” their approaches to policies and issues – since the public tends to side much more often with Democratics/Liberals/Progressives on those same approaches towards issues.

    And so, like you said, maha, with guns, it’s, ‘The Power Tool’s headline is “NEW STUDY FINDS FIREARMS LAWS DO NOTHING TO PREVENT HOMICIDES.” We could easily turn that around and say “NEW STUDY FINDS INCREASED GUN OWNERSHIP DOES NOTHING TO PREVENT HOMICIDES.”’

    The right is great at framing. The left… uhm… not so much – though you do a geat job here.

    Let me give another example, in our mad dash towards “Austerity,” “Earned Benefits,” are called “Entitlements.”
    And how are we to handle them?
    Well, Conservatives and Republicans insist, that we need to REform our “Entitlement” programs – when what they really mean, isn’t “REform,” they mean ‘UNform,” as is annhilitate, destroy, get rid of, bankrupt, etc.

    And so, in order to “UNform” them, which is what they want, they say that any REform, according to Conservatives and Republicans, must always be in the form of “cuts.”

    Because, apparently, you can’t “REform” any programs by INCREASING taxes to pay for them, or repportioning that money – except the millitary, I suppose, in which REform always means more money. Or, has until now.

    If anyone missed it Wednesday in the NY Times, and wants to see how we need to REform “Earned Benefits” in ways without cutting them, here’s a great column by Tom Edsall:

    We Democrats and Liberals need to “frame” things much more effectively.
    And so, I hearby nominate maha, and Steve M., to be our Frank Luntz’s!
    With Bill Clinton and Rachel Maddow, as our “Explainers in Chief.”

  2. Not just scary people breaking into your home. Scary BROWN people breaking into your home. A lot of these pro-gun arguments have that unstated subtext to them, “brown people will be the majority in America within a few decades, I need guns to protect me from them.”

    A well-armed society is a nervous society. That’s the lesson of Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Just sayin’.

  3. A lot of the same people who think women need a “cooling off period” before terminating a pregnancy, refuse to believe that someone contemplating suicide might have second, third and even fourth thoughts if they can’t instantly lay hands on a firearm.

    And accidents? Well as our newly-minted “civil rights hero” (unless you’re a coal miner) Senator Rand Paul would say: “Sometimes accidents just happen.” Stupid kids, why can’t you just stay glued to video games all the time?!

  4. I really don’t understand why there is so much opposition to common sense ideas like backround checks, assault weapon bans, and outlawing large capacity clips. Some say these measures would not make any difference. I disagree; full auto weapons are outlawed, and we don’t see many instances of crimes committed with full auto weapons.

  5. Instead of arguing about what does or doesn’t work or why. (left or right) lets go outside the scope of the US territories to look at what does work. When you point out that the only countries with gun fatality rates as high as the US are virtual anarchys, those on the right will point out Switzerland, a country with per capita gun ownership on a par with the US and a gun fatality rate about half the US.

    Switzerland has a ban on concealed carry. they require background checks, they limit the number of guns a citizen can buy, and the most factor(in my view) is because the political concept that every household with a soldier has a rifle, a very large percentage of gun owners have gun training. Ignorance can be cured with training, though stupidity is permanent. If anyone inclined to own a gun had to know about guns – competence, safety and the law – gun problems would decrease.

  6. “I really don’t understand why there is so much opposition to common sense ideas like backround checks, assault weapon bans, and outlawing large capacity clips”

    Background checks – if universal would almost certainly result in less guns being sold.

    Assault weapons Ban – would result in less guns being sold

    Outlawing large clips – would result in less guns and ammo being sold

    Get the picture, as with anything else the right wing promotes it’s all about the money. If they could find a way to make money on common sense they would, but they can’t!

  7. “One of the things the absolutists keep saying is that arming society prevents violent crime, because criminals fear “good guy” citizens with guns.”

    They’ll soon be defining this down just like they did with tax cuts for rich people. I’m old enough to remember when that was supposed to make things BETTER for non-rich people. Now, of course, it’s more like “Well, if you hold the statistics up to the light at just the right angle and squint a little and ignore a coupla numbers, it’s kinda the same as before, but better because FREEDOM!”

    “Well, Conservatives and Republicans insist, that we need to REform our “Entitlement” programs – when what they really mean, isn’t “REform,” they mean ‘UNform,” as is annhilitate, destroy, get rid of, bankrupt, etc.”

    In my newspaper days, we were taught to avoid using the word “reform,” because it has a positive connotation – everybody wants to “reform” stuff. I was under the impression that that was common practice, but of course avoiding angry e-mails from conservatives trumps everything else now.

  8. Anyone in Chicago will tell you that more guns do not equal less crime, and that the opposite is true. The right always talk about “criminals disobeying the laws” to get their hands on guns, therefore, the “good guys,” no criminals they, must have “unfettered access” to guns, lest the criminals will have them, but they won’t. But it is that “unfettered” access that allows criminals to get guns in the first place:


    For years, Chicago police and city officials have been begging the legislature to close the loopholes on gun purchases, to no avail. But if we are going to keep things lax enough to make straw purchasing practically legal, thanks to “unfettered access” then we at least need to make them more accountable. E.g. if I buy a gun and give it to a crook, and that crook uses it to kill someone with, then I as the purchaser should be held responsible.

  9. Erinyes,

    I’m sure what I pointed out isn’t anything you don’t know. I just wish more gun owners like myself could see what the Wing-nuts, NRA and the Gun manuf. are up to. I believe we will get some reform someday but I really think it has to come from the middle, many gun-owners (some otherwise reasonable people) have been unfortunatly convinced that liberals are out to take all their guns.

  10. those on the right will point out Switzerland, a country with per capita gun ownership on a par with the US and a gun fatality rate about half the US.

    Those righties with their per capita and on par argument are either intentionally stupid or naturally stupid..you can see right on the face of that argument that there’s a major descrepency in logic concerning the increase in volume of guns and the increase in probabilty due to that increase in volume.

    goatherd provided an analogy a while back about tossing lit matches into a dark room containing an open container of gasoline and how with each successive match thrown there is an increase in the probability of igniting that gasoline. Although you can’t quantify that probability, you can know that with each toss of a match that probability of igniting that gasoline increases. The same holds true for pumping guns into society..The more guns, the more people will be killed by guns.
    It doesn’t matter how those people are killed, whether it’s suicide or homocide or accidental..If you reduce the availibilty you reduce the probabilty, as far as gun deaths are concerned.

  11. Those on the right will point out Switzerland, a country with per capita gun ownership on a par with the US and a gun fatality rate about half the US.

    An important point about Switzerland the right never mentions is the large majority of reserve soldiers with guns at home DON’T HAVE AMMUNITION. Only military police and a few special forces are issued, or permitted to keep, ammo to store at home. In a national emergency the rest are expected to report to their duty stations to receive ammunition. They can go to firing ranges and be issued ammo to use at the range to maintain proficiency, but not to take home.
    A rifle without ammunition is a handy club, but not much else.

  12. I don’t own a gun and would be happy enough if guns would disappear from the face of the Earth. That said, about the weakest argument for banning guns is that they “cause suicides” or that they make it too easy to commit suicide.

    First off, I respect a person’s decision to end his/her life. Most people don’t want to die, but everyone will (eventually). Given the choice of suffering a prolonged horrible death from cancer or ending it on my own terms, I’d like to be able to decide myself, and I resent those who would prevent me from having that control. There are certain things I don’t want the government to do for me, and one of those is deciding whether or not I have the right to die.

    Now it’s certainly true that it’s easier to kill oneself with a gun than it is with a knife, or by hanging or drowning. There are various poisons we all have in our house that would do the job, but swallowing those will almost certainly result in a horribly painful death. Given a choice, almost everyone intent on committing suicide would choose sleeping pills, but these days the sleeping pills that are sold (by prescription) have been formulated to make it almost impossible to take a fatal dose. Back when barbiturates were routinely prescribed, swallowing about 20 pills would do the job. Nowadays it’s almost impossible to get barbiturates. Doctors prescribe benzodiazepines (ie Valium) or “Z-drugs” (ie Ambien) – a fatal dose would require well over 100 pills and even then people have survived such large doses with nothing to show for it but a hangover.

    An overdose of heroin is very likely to be fatal, and it’s probably the easiest way one could commit suicide given what is available today. But it’s highly illegal to even possess the stuff, and most people ill with cancer aren’t good buddies with the local drug dealer. Guns, on the other hand, are readily available and legal (at least in the USA). Thus, it’s hardly surprising that more than half of the successful suicides in America are accomplished with guns.

    Like I said, I have no love of guns. Preventing murders (and robberies, kidnappings, etc) is a good reason to ban guns.But if your argument for banning them is that we can “save lives” by preventing suicides, then you’ve lost the argument before you’ve started as far as I’m concerned.

    • Paraquat — First, nobody has said anything about banning guns. Second, you are missing the point about suicides, even though I believe I stated it clearly.

      The data are clear that the presence of guns increases the likelihood of suicide. This is not something to be dismissed, especially since the risk factor is especially high for adolescents. Adolescents are twice as likely to commit suicide when there is a gun in their home than if there is no gun available.

      Read that last sentence a few times, if you need to. It makes all of your arguments irrelevant, IMO. It’s one thing for an older adult to choose to die and another for a teenager to make that decision. If you’ve ever been a teenager you ought to be able to appreciate that.

      Several factors could be at work here, and correlation is not necessarily causation. Nobody is saying the presence of a gun causes someone to want to kill himself. However, it’s not unreasonable to think that someone who impulsively shoots himself in a moment of despair might have had second thoughts if he had to take several steps to do the deed, such as walk to a bridge or acquire enough drugs. This is especially true for adolescents, I would think. It’s also possible that the presence of firearms and the increased risk of suicide are not themselves cause and effect, but are both symptomatic of something else. But until we know what the “something else” is, at the very least gun owners need to understand the risk factors.

      One of my long-standing rants here is that if someone wants to keep a gun in his home, he is responsible for storing it in a way that others living in the home can’t easily get to it, especially children. It’s recommended that gun owners keep their unloaded guns in one locked safe and ammunition in another locked safe, and keys/combinations aren’t to be left lying around, either. The data don’t tell us how guns were kept in homes, and whether keeping them very secure and out of sight changes the risk factors, but it would be worth looking into.

  13. From Time Magazine –

    “Weapons are kept at home because of the long-held belief that enemies could invade tiny Switzerland quickly, so every soldier had to be able to fight his way to his regiment’s assembly point.”

    I am confused. If Mike is correct, then Time is wrong or misleading. It doesn’t seem likely that the militia is expected to club their way to the military assembly point. It’s quite possible that they aren’t allowed to stockpile ammo – that would be consistent with the other restrictions I have read about. My point was and is – a gun culture like the Swiss have can also have sane restrictions and the maturity that the Swiss show in their gun culture differs from America because of the education that goes along with ownership.

    At the risk of becoming unpopular here (more than I am) Power Tools is right in one regard. A ban on assault weapons won’t reduce suicides. Generally one bullet is sufficient for suicide. Regarding child tragedies, a limit on magazine size won’t save kids who have access that they shouldn’t have. That’s not to say we shouldn’t consider restrictions, but we shouldn’t pretend that hi-cap mags increase the threat of suicides or child tragedies. Those statistics are an argument for access to mental health care, and mandatory education for gun owners.

    Read more: http://world.time.com/2012/12/20/the-swiss-difference-a-gun-culture-that-works/#ixzz2N02WbppO

  14. Guns and suicide: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/magazine/guns-and-suicide/

    “Studies show that most attempters act on impulse, in moments of panic or despair. Once the acute feelings ease, 90 percent do not go on to die by suicide.”

    This is incredibly important now, because its become accepted practice that you have a loaded gun readily accessible to defend your home. That however has the side effect of leaving a loaded gun readily accessible to other members of your household. It wasn’t always this way. I think I have said it here before, but in decades past most gun owners organizations taught that weapons should be unloaded even before entering a domicile and that they then should be locked securely away. Fifty years ago it would have been considered criminally stupid to leave a loaded gun in your night stand.

    And for the record Switzerland does not have a per capita gun number that compares with the US. The most recent data I can find state that its about half the rate of the US. Shockingly if you start to graph out the per capita firearms and gun violence data for first world nations with strong economies on a simple x/y axis there seems to be a correlation between per capita firearms and amounts of gun violence.

  15. Barbara –

    On the issue of guns and suicide – the statistical correlations are important. Likewise the stats that gun owners are much more likely to be killed. Mother Jones –

    “For every time a gun is used in self-defense in the home, there are 7 assaults or murders, 11 suicide attempts, and 4 accidents involving guns in or around a home.”

    I don’t need to school you about the facts – but the people who don’t know the facts and desperately need to know the facts, generally don’t read Mahablog. So I return (like the dog to his vomit) to my argument – the most important aspect of gun reform is mandatory gun education for gun owners. This is where you can change the stats on suicide, and accidental gun fatalities (and injuries).

  16. The problem is that it really isn’t the gov’ts job to save people from themselves.

  17. So, libarbarian, why have speed limit signs?
    Why have stop signs, and signal lights?
    Yield signs?
    Railroad crossing signs?
    Hell, why have laws in the first place?

    Ok, so maybe government isn’t there to save people from themselves, but maybe it’s there to save people from others?

    Can’t be.
    Government is completely useless.
    Why did we ever need it, and create it, after we left the caves, and stopped hunting and gathering, and began to settle into lands where we could grow crops, and raise domesticated animals?
    Nah, government’s completely useless.

    Go home, troll.
    You’ve exceded the “TEH STOOPID” limit.

  18. gulag,

    Yes, the words you put in my mouth did exceed “teh stoopid” limit.

    Those are some bad analogies. All of those things protect people from other people. Stop signs keep me from ramming you and you from T-boning me. They don’t keep me or you from running our cars off the road nor is that their point at all. Yield signs and RR Xing signs are all there to stop accidents, not to stop people from the momentary urge to off themselves.

    Saving people from others is certainly the job of Government. Stopping suicides is not including in this mandate as suicides are self-inflicted.

    • Stopping suicides is not including in this mandate as suicides are self-inflicted.

      Write back when you’re the parent of a suicidal adolescent. Keeping a gun in your home significantly increases the chance your child will commit suicide.

      People do all kinds of damage to themselves in all kinds of ways, and it is a public service for government to provide clear information about risk factors. Smoking causes cancer; obesity leads to heart disease; keeping guns in the home increases suicide risk. As noted in another comment, Israel found it could significantly decrease suicides among people enlisted in the military by not allowing them to take their guns home.

      And while suicide may be self-inflicted, certain factors (such as being a teenager or clinical depression) that can’t be helped.

      My point was not that we must save people by taking guns away from them, but that any honest assessment of the risk of gun death has to include suicide statistics.

  19. Ok, libarbarian, that makes some sense.

    I’m sorry if I painted with too broad a brush – but you weren’t specific enough to let me paint more accurately.

    I’m not against adult people who are prepared, and know the consequences, committing suicide, when they know that it’s a responsible option, since, in many ways, that is what I will probably plan to to do – eventually.

  20. maha,

    Yes, keeping a gun in the home definitely increases the risk of suicides. Thats perfectly correct and should be something that gun owners know and I have no problem with the CDC conducting research verifying this and publishing it to help people make their own decision about whats best for them and their family. My mother “made” my father get rid of his old service .45 precisely because for this reason – he has issues with depression. I don’t even have a problem with otherwise using social pressure to make irresponsible gun storage “uncool” for parents .. hell, even gun ownership even though I’d be a victim of that one. I certainly don’t have any problem with educating people that the risks of having an easy-to-get-and-shoot-quickly gun are generally far greater for you and your family than the risk that you will be in a situation where failure to have such an easily accessible firearm will mean harm to you and your family.

    My point is the limited one that reducing suicides is not a strong argument for gun control by the gov’t. That’s it. Arguments for gov’t gun-control should be rooted in stopping harm to each other. In stopping murders and even stopping dangerous accidents/negligence by frickin’ dumbasses.

    • My point is the limited one that reducing suicides is not a strong argument for gun control by the gov’t. That’s it.

      And my point is the limited one that suicides cannot be dismissed from gun violence statistics; nor can accidental shootings.

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