Guns and Suicide

November 18th, 2013

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.