Now, Where Was I?

When we last left our fisking of the Harvard Magazine article Death by the Barrel, I promised I’d take on the “guns cause suicide” meme. Again. Let’s see where we were…

Oh, yes. We left off at the paragraph that stated,

In general, guns don’t induce people to commit crimes. “What guns do is make crimes lethal,” says Hemenway. They also make suicide attempts lethal: about 60 percent of suicides in America involve guns. “If you try to kill yourself with drugs, there’s a 2 to 3 percent chance of dying,” he explains. “With guns, the chance is 90 percent.”

This is another incidence of “just enough fact” I mentioned in the first piece of this fisk. It is true that suicide attempts with firearms are far more likely to be “successful,” thus ending in death, but the implication is that people who don’t really intend to commit suicide choose a firearm simply because they’re available, and thus an attempt that would have been a “cry for help” actually ends in death.

I’m sorry, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Let’s continue with the next couple of paragraphs as author Craig Lambert lays it out for you:

Gun deaths fall into three categories: homicides, suicides, and accidental killings. In 2001, about 30,000 people died from gunfire in the United States. Set this against the 43,000 annual deaths from motor-vehicle accidents to recognize what startling carnage comes out of a barrel. The comparison is especially telling because cars “are a way of life,” as Hemenway explains. “People use cars all day, every day—and ‘motor vehicles’ include trucks. How many of us use guns?”

Suicides accounted for about 58 percent of gun fatalities, or 17,000 to 18,000 deaths, in 2001; another 11,000 deaths, or 37 percent, were homicides, and the remaining 800 to 900 gun deaths were accidental. For rural areas, the big problem is suicide; in cities, it’s homicide. (“In Wyoming it’s hard to have big gang fights,” Hemenway observes dryly. “Do you call up the other gang and drive 30 miles to meet up?”) Homicides follow a curve similar to that of motor-vehicle fatalities: rising steeply between ages 15 and 21, staying fairly level from there until age 65, then rising again with advanced age. Men between 25 and 55 commit the bulk of suicides, and younger males account for an inflated share of both homicides and unintentional shootings. (Males suffer all injuries, including gunshots, at much higher rates than females.)

First, let’s take a look at the study done for the (not gun friendly) Journal of the American Medical Association done by (not gun-friendly) Jens Ludwig of Georgetown University and (not gun friendly) Phillip J. Cook of Duke University. That study is entitled Homicide and Suicide Rates after the Brady Act (PDF file). The study was to determine what, if any, effect the five-day waiting period required by the Brady Act had on suicide and homicide when compared to areas that previously had such waiting periods in place. The conclusion drawn when it came to suicide was:

(W)e did not detect an association of the Brady Act with overall suicide rates.

We find some signs of an offsetting increase in nongun suicides to those aged 55 years or older, which makes the reduction in the total suicide rate smaller than the reduction in gun suicides. Neither the increase in nongun suicides nor the decrease in suicides from all causes are statistically significant at the conventional 95% level, though the overall pattern of findings is consistent with theories of “weapon substitution.”

Note that. The only effect a waiting period apparently had – and the evidence is tenuous – is that those people 55 and older choosing suicide had a tendency to choose another method. It’s called “weapon substitution.”

Let’s look at another example of such substitution, in another country. The rate of suicide for young men in Australia began climbing in the mid 1960’s. It reached a peak in the early 1990’s where it remains essentially unchanged, according to this site. What has changed, however, is the method of suicide, and for no apparent reason. According to this site

In 1972, the leading method of suicide for young men was using firearms or explosives (44%). However, by 1992, suicide by hanging, strangulation or suffocation had become their leading method of suicide (33%). The shift in method occurred in the mid to late 1980s. During this period the death rate for young male suicide by firearms and explosives decreased marginally, from 9 to 8 per 100,000, while the rate for suicides by hanging, strangulation and suffocation increased substantially, from 3 to 8 per 100,000. These data contradict much of the recent literature which has focused on the greater use of firearms as the cause of the increase in young male suicides.

In contrast, the most prevalent method used by young women was poisoning by solid or liquid substances, accounting for 29% of cases in 1988-92. Although the incidence of suicide from hanging, strangulation and suffocation also increased among young women during the mid to late 1980s the corresponding rate was much lower than that of young men (less than 2 per 100,000). Firearms were used in 13% of cases and hanging, strangulation and suffocation in 24%.

It would appear that if you really want to die, the method is immaterial. There were no notable gun-control measures passed in the period where youth suicide in Australia tripled, but the leading method changed from firearm to suffocation anyway.

Further, the implication is that the United States has an astronomical suicide rate because of our astronomical number of guns. Remember, 58% of death from firearms is suicide here, 15,000 to 17,000 annually, right? Well, the U.S. is, in actuality, right in the middle of the pack internationally, as suicide rates go. Let me quote myself from an earlier piece:

Yes indeed, according to CDC statistics 16,599 Americans did kill themselves with firearms in 1999. Another 12,764 killed themselves by other means. The total number of suicides was 29,350, and the rate per 100,000 population was 10.66.

That puts the United States, with its 200,000,000+ firearms, over 65 MILLION of which are handguns, firmly in the MIDDLE OF THE PACK for suicide internationally. If firearms actually cause suicide, then our population should have offed itself a few generations ago.

Let’s look at some comparitives, shall we? Japan, a nation with a population of about 126,600,000 in 1999, a little less than half our own, suffered 31,385 suicides – a rate of 24.8 per hundred thousand population. And there are essentially NO privately owned firearms in Japan. Even Japanese police officers leave their firearms at work when they go home. The Japanese kill themselves by asphyxiation (either by hanging or car exhaust) or by jumping off of buildings or in front of moving trains. To be fair, Japan’s suicide rates have skyrocketed with their recent economic downturn (it would appear that a bad economy represents a much higher risk of suicide than individual ownership of a firearm.) On average, the suicide rate in Japan has run at about 17 per 100,000. Considerably higher than the U.S. but not more than double.

But most people are aware of the high rate of suicide in Japan, and dismiss it as being “cultural.” Are they also aware, however, of the suicide rates in France? According to this CDC report from 1998, France had a suicide rate of 21 per 100,000. Leading method? Suffocation. France is followed closely by Denmark with a suicide rate of 18 per 100,000. Leading method? Pretty much evenly split between suffocation and poisoning.

According to this table, in 1997 of the eleven countries with the top per capita Gross National Products (the US ranks in the middle), the US has the second lowest suicide rate. Only the Netherlands was lower. See the chart:

Now, the author of the Harvard Magazine article states “If you try to kill yourself with drugs, there’s a 2 to 3 percent chance of dying,” he explains. “With guns, the chance is 90 percent.” You are to assume from this that because guns are available they become the choice of people wanting to attempt suicide, and therefore more people actually die in the attempt than would otherwise. However, looking at international comparisons, especially in countries like France and Denmark where suicide rates are far higher than in the U.S., and suffocation and poisoning are the leading causes, the likelihood of “successful” suicide seems unaffected by “gun availability.”

In the specific case of Finland, where I noted before that 50% of households contain a firearm as opposed to 35% of households here, 95% of deaths by firearm are suicides. That sounds horrible, and it sounds like it supports the proposition that “guns cause suicide” – but it doesn’t. The fact is that criminal homicide in Finland is very, very low, so suicide represents a far greater proportion of deaths by firearm. (It also shoots in the *ss the idea that “guns cause homicide,” but that’s beside the point.) Suicide by firearm here represents 56% of the total number of suicides. In Finland, the majority of suicides are committed by suffocation – specifically, by hanging oneself.

Canada, our neighbor to the North, has a slightly higher rate of suicide that the U.S. The most common method there is suffocation, followed by poisoning. Firearms are used in only about 22% of Canada’s suicides.

Like criminal homicide, the level of suicide is a cultural thing. The availability of method appears to be immaterial. If someone wants to die, they will accomplish that end. If guns are not available, other methods will be substituted and they will be effective. If a “cry for help” is intended, then the person will choose a less-lethal option, because everybody knows that if you put a loaded gun to your head and pull the trigger, chances are you won’t survive the experience.

GUNS DON’T CAUSE SUICIDE, no matter how much the gun controllers want you to believe it. The availability of method is unimportant to someone intent on killing themselves, “gun control” won’t affect the numbers no matter how they want to twist it, and Craig Lambert and David Hemenway are twisting pretty hard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *