Nov 18, 2013

Posted in Uncategorized

Guns and Suicide

In my research, I’ve found that nearly 60% of deaths by firearm are the result of suicides. Roughly 30% are from homicides. The overwhelming majority of which are based deaths from criminal acts, and deaths from familicide (where the perpetrator knows the victim). The rest are from causes where the intent cannot be ascertained. But this triggered a related thought.

Proponents of gun control, mostly progressives, often focus on the 60% suicide number as a reason to make it tougher to have guns. I don’t know this area well enough, but what is the progressive opposition to suicide? I have only studied this issue in the context of Washington v. Glucksberg, where liberals advocated a constitutional right to assisted suicide.  I suppose that right may be limited to the context where someone is suffering a painful, terminal death, and aided by a trained physician. But why should someone suffering other types of pain, perhaps psychological torment or depression at a younger age, not be able to avail themselves of this right? Can it only be performed by a qualified professional, like Dr. Jack?

If there is a right to assisted suicide, certainly there must be a right to suicide! I never understood how suicide, or more precisely, assisted suicide, should be criminalized under a progressive vision of law. ask this question in earnest. What is the liberal, progressive opposition to suicide?

I fully comprehend the conservative objection to suicide based on sanctity of life, but from the progressive side, that sanctity is often outweighed by other interests.

One other, related footnote. On average there are roughly 20 murders on college campuses each year. Annually, roughly 1,000 college students die from suicide, and another 1,500 die from binge drinking and drug overdose.

Update: Alex Tabarrok has a paper almost entirely on point.

In my latest paper, Firearms and Suicides in US States, (written with the excellent Justin Briggs) we examine the easier question, what is the relationship between firearms and suicide? Using a variety of techniques and data we estimate that a 1 percentage point increase in the household gun ownership rate leads to a .5 to .9% increase in suicides.* (n.b. slight change in language from earlier version for clarity.)

Even if one thinks that suicides don’t cause gun ownership one might imagine that they are correlated due say to a third factor such as social anomie. We have an interesting test of this in the paper. If suicides and gun ownership were being driven by a third factor we would expect gun ownership to be correlated with all suicides not just gun-suicide. What we find, however, is that an increase in gun ownership decrease non-gun suicide. From an economics perspective this makes perfect sense. As gun ownership increases, the cost of gun-suicide falls because guns are easier to access and as the cost of gun-suicide falls there is substitution away from non-gun suicide.

Put differently, when gun ownership decreases other methods of suicide increase. Substitution among methods is not perfect, however, so when gun ownership decreases we see a big decrease in gun-suicide and a substantial but less than fully compensating increase in non-gun suicide so a net decrease in the number of suicides.

Our econometric results are consistent with the literature on suicide which finds that suicide is often a rash and impulsive decision–most people who try but fail to commit suicide do not recommit at a later date–as a result, small increases in the cost of suicide can dissuade people long enough so that they never do commit suicide.

The results in the paper appear to be robust but the data on gun ownership is frustratingly sparse due to political considerations.

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  • Tex Ripples

    I don’t know that it’s my position, but I don’t think taking the positions that 1) gun suicide is bad and gun control to reduce it is good and 2) assisted suicide is a social good that should be allowed are necessarily as contradictory as they appear. My understanding based on what I’ve read (but, conveniently cannot cite to at this moment) is that gun suicide is like a heat of the moment style crime. Overwhelmed by sudden depression or grief, a person makes use of a convenient firearm to commit suicide. In contrast, assisted suicide would likely be a longer term process whereby there would be counseling and goodbyes. I don’t think that it’s contradictory to want to reduce suicides by sudden urge while still wanting to give those that want to commit suicide for prolonged periods some amount of dignity in doing so.

  • Anon

    Josh, this is what happens when you stray from constitutional law: you say things that are patently idiotic. The liberal educated position on preventing gun-assisted suicide attempts is based on any number of easily verifiable facts, had you cared to look. The vast majority of people who survive a suicide attempt never try again. The psychological literature is replete with testimonials of people who immediately regret their decision to attempt suicide (with survivors of Golden Gate Bridge jumps being the most popular in the public consciousness). People who receive treatment for depression or mood disorders are far less likely to attempt suicide. Etc. etc. Gun-assisted suicide attempts are by far the most lethal, and by all accounts, most people who succeed would take that decision back if they could. But by all means, let’s put guns in the hands of the depressed or addicted and let libertarianism work it out. Maybe stick the property lectures and refrain from delving into realms where you are, by all accounts, completely uninformed.

    • I asked a question in earnest about a topic I’m not familiar with. I said as much. One of the best virtues of this blog is I can ask questions, and people offer answers. I don’t think I said anything about giving guns to depressed or suicidal people. To the contrary, I think these are problems that warrant more attention that mass shootings, which tend to suck up all of the gun-related attention.

      • Anon

        Thank you for posting this research paper. I find this research to be powerful support for the liberal position on gun control as a policy tool to reduce gun-assisted suicide, and suicide in general, and I applaud you for posting it. Although I have a twinge of regret for going full snark in my comment, I also felt (and feel) that your OP dealt quite flippantly with a question which, as I hope you will see on consideration, cuts deeply for a not insignificant subset of the US population. Differentiating between gun control as a suicide prevention policy tool, and physician evaluated and assisted suicide, seems to me to require only modest inquiry. I hope this discussion and this research will inform your thinking on the 2d Amendment jurisprudence, and the liberal position thereon.

    • Lawman45

      Anon. posted: “by all accounts, most people who succeed would take that decision back if they could.” Did you use a Medium, an ouija board, or a crystal ball to speak with the dead about the strength of their motivations? In the late 1970’s after Canada greatly tightened handgun restrictions the Canadian government did a study and concluded “Canadians appear to have fully substituted suicide by leaping”. The young women in the Far East who drink insecticide would choose a gun if available, I’ll bet.

      • Lawman,
        Do you have a source for that Canadian study? Thanks!

  • Lawman45

    Most gun facilitated suicides are committed by aging, ill, rural men. If I get untreatable bone cancer (I’m 65 now) and have a lucid moment in my upcoming battle with Alzheimer’s, I hope that 9mm pistol will still be at my bedside. MY f**king choice. It’s more that a great many mommies-to-be give their unborn children. That’s what I love about progressives, they “know” the motives of the dead and they “know what’s best for ME.