Gun Advocates In Media Dismiss Evidence That Links Firearm Access And Suicide

Right-wing media figures are dismissing extensive evidence to deny a link between firearm availability and suicide in the United States.  

On the February 19 edition of the NRA News program Cam & Company, host Cam Edwards claimed during an ironically titled “Media Misinformation” segment that “we know that the prevalence of firearms does not always indicate increase in suicides. Take Japan for instance. Gun control advocates love talking about Japan's low violent crime rate. They don't usually bring up Japan's sky high suicide rate, far higher than that of the United States, despite a near total absence of firearms in civilian hands.”

Ann Coulter, a conservative commentator and frequent Fox guest made a similar claim on the February 4 edition of Hannity on Fox News, stating that, “You might say, well but then having a gun they are going to commit suicide and they wouldn't have otherwise. No, that is false. Suicide rates do not go up with the availability of guns. The Japanese, for example, have no guns. They have twice our suicide rate. You see the same thing state to state. No matter what gun laws are, suicide rates have nothing to do with that.”

In fact, numerous studies appearing in peer reviewed journals have proven that there is a strong nexus between firearm availability and suicide in the United States.

[The New York Times, accessed 2/21/13]

While approximately 9 percent of all suicide attempts are fatal, 85 percent of firearm suicide attempts result in death. Contrary to unsupported claims that troubled individuals will simply find an alternate method to commit suicide if an attempt fails, persons who have survived a suicide attempt usually do not find another way to end their lives. According to a review of 90 studies on the long term outcomes of individuals who previously attempted suicide, 89 to 95 percent did not become future victims of suicide. Notably, individuals who attempt suicide by firearms rarely have such an opportunity to continue their lives.  

On the NRA News segment, Edwards was attempting to rebut a video in which USA Today reporter Liz Szabo accurately stated that “guns are the leading cause of suicide in the United States” and that “guns prove fatal 85 percent of the time.” Szabo's video accompanied an article on the recent suicide by firearm of country singer Mindy McCready that discussed how firearms are involved in less than 6 percent of suicide attempts but account for 55 percent of suicide fatalities.

[Harvard School of Public Health, accessed 2/21/13]

The comparison between the United States and Japan made by Edwards and Coulter is facile and speculative. For example, it is also possible that if Japan's firearm availability mirrored that of the United States, Japan's suicide rate would further outpace the rate in the United States. Furthermore, a broader comparison between developed nations finds that American children between the ages of 5 and 14 commit suicide twice as often as children from other developed nations, a divergence largely driven by a comparatively astronomical gun suicide rate. [David Hemenway, Private Guns Public Health, pg. 37]

Numerous studies conducted by Harvard Injury Control Research Center Director David Hemenway and his colleagues have demonstrated the link between firearm availability and suicide. Separate studies published in 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2007 all found that states with more guns had higher suicide rates. The 2007 study published by Dr. Hemenway and others in Journal of Trauma found “US residents of all ages and both sexes are more likely to die from suicide when they live in areas where more households contain firearms. A positive and significant association exists between levels of household firearm ownership and rates of firearm and overall suicide.” A series of studies conducted between 1988 and 1997 found that gun suicide rates were 3.8 times higher in the five states where people owned the most guns compared to the five states with the lowest gun ownership rate. [Private Guns Public Health, pg. 43]

Furthermore, while no evidence indicates that gun owners are more suicidal than the general public, gun owners do experience a higher incidence of suicide compared to non-gun owners. According to a 2011 study published in Suicide and Life Threatening Behaviors this difference “can be explained by easy access to a gun.” According to research reviewed by Hemenway, having a gun in the home makes suicide three to five more times likely. [Private Guns Public Health, pgs. 40-41]

During the “Media Misinformation” segment, Edwards also told viewers “don't think that it's going to be possible for you to suicide proof your home.” But given that gun availability is linked to suicide and that suicide by firearm is particularly lethal, it is clear that restricting a troubled individual's access to firearms can save his or her life. In fact, according to Hemenway, “The evidence supporting the effectiveness of removing guns is probably stronger than that for almost any other single suicide-prevention policy.” [Private Guns Public Health, pg. 44]

Furthermore, Hemenway notes that the enactment of strong gun violence prevention laws is associated with lower levels of suicide:

A variety of studies have examined the relationship between the strictness of gun control laws and suicide rates. Many cross-sectional studies find that strict state gun control laws are significantly associated with lower levels of suicide (Lester and Murrell 1982, 1986; Medoff and Magaddino 1983; Boor and Bair 1990; Yan and Lester 1991). Time-series studies in the United States and Canada also find a significant reduction in suicide rates after the enactment of stringent gun control laws (Loftin et al. 1991; Carrington and Moyer 1994). [Private Guns Public Health, pg. 44]