Harvard study finds a gun in the home increases risk of suicide

A semi-automatic handgun and a holster are displayed at a North Little Rock, Ark., gun shop.
A semi-automatic handgun and a holster are displayed at a North Little Rock, Ark., gun shop.
AP Photo/Danny Johnston

In the late 1950s in England and Wales, people began switching from heating their stoves with a gas containing carbon monoxide to one that didn’t. Over the next two decades, the suicide rate dropped—a decline attributed in a landmark study to the decline in death by carbon monoxide poisoning. Forty years later, the Sri Lankan government began to restrict the use of extremely toxic pesticides that had been commonly ingested to commit suicide. The suicide rate in that country dropped by half. In the United States, gun ownership dropped over a 22-year period ending in 2002, and the suicide rate declined, too.

When people talk about preventing suicide, the conversation usually centers on detecting and treating suicidal behavior, but a growing body of evidence points to a far simpler and more effective way to save thousands of lives: simply remove the means by which people commit suicide. In the United States, that means firearms; half of all suicides are committed with a gun.

But despite dovetailing streams of evidence from history and public health research that removing guns from the houses of people at risk of suicide could save thousands of lives, some critics have been unpersuaded. Skeptics argue that perhaps gun owners, and the people who live with them, are just more suicidal than the regular population.

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A new study published by Dr. Matthew Miller, associate professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health, offers powerful evidence to the contrary, showing that while rates of suicide attempts are virtually identical in states with high and low gun ownership, the number of gun deaths from suicide are four times higher in states with high gun ownership, where about half the people live in homes with guns. Overall suicide rates are also higher, but the rate of suicides that did not use guns was not.

“If you look back to cigarette smoking and lung cancer and the history of the resistance that was put up and the uncertainty that was manufactured by the cigarette industry, it is almost like a blueprint for many of the arguments that pro-gun forces have made in the US,” Miller said. “But the evidence has really gotten over the last 10 years or so to be overwhelming.”

Suicide comes with a stigma that means it rarely gets the attention it deserves, as the 10th most common cause of death in the United States and the second most common cause of death of people under age 40. My colleague, Leon Neyfakh, wrote an important story earlier this year calling attention to the remarkable fact that there are nearly twice as many gun deaths by suicide than by homicide, and three out of every five people who are killed by a gun are dying by their own hand.

Far from advocating for the abolition of gun ownership or even gun control, researchers such as Miller argue that lives could be saved by removing guns from the home when a family member is depressed or angry or at risk of self-harm. That’s because suicide attempts with other means are often unsuccessful.

In the new study, published in August in the American Journal of Epidemiology, he and colleagues point out a striking statistic. In 2010, 22,000 people attempted suicide with a gun, and all but 2,000 were successful. If one out of every 10 of those people used something other than a gun, about 1,900 additional people would have lived.

“This is not about legislating our way out of it,” Miller said. “If I have a kid who is moody and having problems or a husband or wife who just lost a job and is being issued divorce papers, or just going through a rough time, the best thing I can do to reduce that person’s immediate risk of death from suicide” is to take guns out of the house.

What’s needed now, Miller said, is more research on suicide and guns. President Obama called for $10 million be spent on public health firearm research in the wake of the Newtown school shooting, and Miller thinks it is important that the brunt of the public health burden, suicide, receives a good share of that funding.

“My feeling is the stigma that attaches itself to suicide is something that has kept us from speaking more objectively and commonly about the ways to prevent it,” Miller said. “The idea that you can prevent it is now seen as entirely within the mental health arena, and that’s problematic, because there are many good reasons to try to prevent mental illness and treat it, including reducing suicidal behavior. But we haven’t really been very good at doing that.”