At a summit on gun violence held at Johns Hopkins this past week, Harvard professor Matthew Miller presented a comparison of people living in “high-gun states,” where there are firearms in approximately 50 percent of homes, with those living in “low-gun states,” where that number is around 15 percent. Looking at these two groups of people side by side, Miller showed that they had similar rates of depression and suicidal thoughts, as well as similar rates of suicide that did not involve firearms, like hanging and poisoning. But the number of people who died by shooting themselves was almost four times greater in the high-gun states. In total, there were almost twice as many suicides among people living in high-gun states as there were in low-gun states.
Based on these and other similar studies, public health researchers have rallied around a striking conclusion: Merely having a gun in one’s home increases the likelihood that someone living there will commit suicide by a factor of two to ten, depending on age and how the gun is stored.
This is, on its face, a perplexing idea. It also has a few detractors, such as criminologist Gary Kleck of Florida State University, who has questioned the methods of public health researchers, and argued that they are not taking into account the possibility that gun-owners are more likely to commit suicide for reasons that have nothing to do with their access to guns. (“He’s just plain wrong about this,” said Miller in an e-mail. “In fact, we do know that gun owners and their families are not more suicidal, in general, than are non-gun-owners and their families.”)
In the public-health community, researchers have widely come to regard it as a basic truth that access to a gun makes it more likely that someone who wants to commit suicide actually manages to do so. A big part of the reason is simply the lethality of guns: Studies show that between 85 and 90 percent of people who shoot themselves die as a result, while the percentage of people who die using other means is vastly lower. Alan Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, points out that guns, unlike other methods, leave people no time to change their minds. They also require less preparation and planning, provided they’re accessible.
“To some people, it’s just totally counterintuitive, because it’s so obvious that if you want to kill yourself, you can always find something else to kill yourself with,” said Barber. “What they assume is that once you’re suicidal, you remain suicidal.” But a preponderance of evidence, including interviews with suicide survivors, indicates that most suicidal acts come during a surprisingly short period during which the person is suffering an acute crisis.
“When you ask people who’ve made attempts and survived,” Miller said, “even attempts that are life threatening and would have proved lethal [without emergency medical care], what they say is, ‘It was an impulsive act, and I’m glad that I’m alive.’”
The central insight for public health researchers is that a lot of lives could be saved simply by making sure that people don’t have access to an extremely lethal weapon during that high-risk period. One striking illustration of this principle can be seen in the experience of the Israeli Defense Forces, which saw a 40 percent drop in suicides after a new rule was introduced forbidding soldiers from taking their guns home with them over the weekend. Though some soldiers may have tried to kill themselves using some less lethal method instead, it appears that scores of lives were saved.
In the months since the shootings in Newtown and Aurora, Colo., the debate over how to reduce gun violence in the United States has centered on improving background checks and imposing restrictions against assault weapons. But public health researchers focused on suicide prevention tend to take a different tack. “I don’t work on gun control issues,” said Cathy Barber. “It’s fine with me that other people do....But a third or more of people in the United States have a gun at home, and they’re valuable to them, and it doesn’t seem useful to me to ostracize them for their decisions....It just seems more useful to say, ‘OK, that’s what we’re dealing with.’”
One thing that reduces the likelihood that people will impulsively shoot themselves, public health researchers have found, is mandatory gun locks and proper gun storage, which increase the amount of time that passes after a person decides to commit suicide and actually has a loaded gun in hand. “Every minute you can delay them increases the chance that they might survive,” said David Litts, the executive secretary of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.Continued...