Is Owning a Gun Suicidal?

Gun-control advocates claim your risk of suicide is higher if you own a gun. Thirteen different studies, however, have found no meaningful connection between gun ownership and suicide. Let's take a look at why.

Americans often buy guns for self-defense, a purpose that now has Supreme Court validation. But according to advocates of gun control, those purchasers overlook the people who pose the greatest threat: themselves.

Anyone who acquires a firearm, we are told, is inviting a bloody death by suicide.

So says Matthew Miller, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. “If you bought a gun today, I could tell you the risk of suicide to you and your family members is going to be two- to tenfold higher over the next 20 years,” he told The Washington Post.

Since the chance of a gun being used for suicide is so much higher than the chance of it being used to prevent a murder, we would all be better off with fewer firearms around.

It’s a rich irony — as though smoke alarms were increasing fire fatalities. But the argument raises two questions: Is it true? And, when it comes to gun control policy, does it matter?

As it turns out, the claims about guns and suicide don’t stand up well to scrutiny. A 2004 report by the National Academy of Sciences was doubtful, noting that the alleged association is small and may be illusory.

Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck says there are at least 13 published studies finding no meaningful connection between the rate of firearms and the rate of suicides.

The consensus of experts, he says, is that an increase in gun ownership doesn’t raise the number of people who kill themselves — only the number who do it with a gun.

That makes obvious sense. Someone who really wants to commit suicide doesn’t need a .38, because alternative methods abound.

Gun opponents, however, respond that guns inevitably raise the rate because they’re uniquely lethal. Take away the gun, and you greatly increase the chance of survival.

But in his 1997 book, Targeting Guns: Firearms and Their Control, Kleck points out that “suicide attempts with guns are only slightly more likely to end in death than those involving hanging, carbon monoxide poisoning, or drowning.”

It’s not hard to think of some other pretty foolproof means of self-destruction — such as jumping off a tall (or even not so tall) building, stepping in front of a train or driving at 80 mph into a telephone pole.

People who use guns are generally hellbent on ending their lives. So deprived of a sidearm, they will no doubt find another reliable method — rather than swallow a dozen aspirin and wake up in the emergency room.

Banning guns is no more likely to reduce suicides than banning ice cream is to curb obesity.

A few decades ago, various European countries changed the type of natural gas used for home heating and cooking — replacing a toxic form with a harmless variety. That step eliminated one time-tested way of killing oneself.

Alas, while the number of gas suicides declined, in most of these countries, the death toll didn’t.

The same pattern holds for guns. The National Academy of Sciences report noted that any link between firearms and suicides “is not found in comparisons across countries.” The number of guns in a nation tells you nothing about its suicide rate.

But let’s suppose science could establish that people who obtain firearms do indeed increase their death rate (or the death rate of their family members) from suicide. So what?

Buying a car may shorten your lifespan, since traffic accidents are a major killer. Building a backyard swimming pool creates a potential fatal hazard to you and your loved ones. But nobody says the government should interfere with such decisions.

Personal safety is a far more central matter of individual autonomy than those choices. A mentally stable person living in a crime-ridden neighborhood should be free to judge whether she’s more at risk from street criminals than from a spell of intense depression.

Presumptuous paternalists argue that Americans should be deprived of guns because gun owners are their own worst enemies. A lot of Americans would reply: We can’t trust ourselves, but we can trust you?

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist who has contributed articles to several national magazines, including Slate, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard, Reason, and National Review. Born and raised in Texas, he attended Harvard University, where he was on the staff of the Harvard Crimson. Chapman has three children and lives in suburban Chicago.

6 comments from readers  

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Something spoken with such truth, should be an axiom instead of a heavily debated ideal.
The author seems bent on one point of view only (I guess that's why essays get written); but let's be rational about this. Guns require little effort, and they are quite efficient. One could be emotionally on the fence, a gun at one's head, not really sure... and it could go off with little applied force. On a hair-trigger, as it were.The ill or lame could more easily kill themselves with guns than with other standardly available methods. Guns, after all, are engineered to damage human or animal flesh at a distance. That's what they're for. Any other use, target practice or starting pistol shots, are secondary or tertiary uses. So, to efficiently and easily damage living flesh, use a gun. The other methods mentioned, death by jumping, car crashes and the like, really require some degree of bravery or at least a concerted effort, over a span of time several orders of magnitude greater than that of pulling the trigger. These methods are also more difficult for the previously mentioned ill and lame. I don't need the tit for tat of studies to know that having the right tool for the job will get the job done quicker. They're maybe other reasons for gun ownership in the home (and there are), but let's be honest about guns. They are serious business designed to end life. The author's argument is specious. Guns are not symbols about how right we are and how wrong liberals are. If you don't have some modicum of ambivalence concerning the dangers of such devices, you increase the danger that they will be used inappropriately. We should all hope that we never have to use our guns in our own homes.
"Building a backyard swimming pool creates a potential fatal hazard to you and your loved ones. But nobody says the government should interfere with such decisions."

Sadly, in many areas you need all sorts of government inspection to put in a pool. For example, in California you're required to erect a wall around your pool to protect those who may trespass on your property and fall in.
What is more personal to oneself than their own life? If a person chooses to end their life, why should the government have the authority to use force in stopping them? Perhaps if some people were able to successfully end their own life (for what ever the reason) then they might not have the opportunity, or the desire, to harm other innocent people.
What!?! Facts? You're going to try to sway us with the facts? You must have something to do with that Objectivist, Ayn Rand.
In the 1930's a Hungarian song "Szomoru Vasarnap" was blamed for a number of suicides in that country, and was allegedly banned from public performance.

It was later popularized as "Gloomy Sunday" in the United States. The lyrics are suggestive of ending one's life as a means to overcome grief and reunite with a departed loved one. I found at least one instance of a suicide in which a boy in New York shot himself, leaving behind a note in which he quoted lines from the song.

There were suggestions that the song be banned from the airwaves here as well.

Similar attempts have been made in recent years against certain heavy metal songs that allegedly provoked young people to kill themselves.

Fortunately, the First Amendment and the internet make banning a song all but impossible, and any attempt to do so will only increase its circulation.

Hungary has always had a high suicide rate, one song or another would make little difference. The Japanese, who have almost no access to guns. kill themselves in large numbers, frequently taking children and other innocents with them.

Suicide, or homicide, comes from a person's intentions to harm himself or others. Lacking one means to an end, will only mean finding another means to the end.

It might even be argued that shooting oneself is less risky to others than running a car in a closed garage or jumping off a building, both of which have killed innocent people.

Early in his career, when failure seemed imminent, Adolf Hitler pulled a gun and threatened to shoot himself. A female acquaintance stopped him. He eventually succeeded in putting a bullet in his head, but by then, of course, it was too late to undo the harm he had caused.

As others have said, ownership of one's life includes the right to end it. It does not include the right to take anyone else's.

But, even if others misuse guns, that does not change my right to own one. Same goes for cars, medicine, ball bats, or song lyrics.
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.