Can Suicide Rates be Reduced by Gun Control Laws?

The short answer is, “No.” Check out a paper by criminologist Don Kates about gun laws and suicide in Europe that was published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.

Let’s look at the details to see why gun laws are not the solution to suicide in Canada any more than it is in Europe.

Suicide is a topic that must be confronted by the firearms community if for no other reason than public health researchers use it as a cudgel to promote additional restrictions on general firearms ownership.

Here are some facts with which to counter claims by those who oppose civilian firearms ownership.

  1. Suicide accounts for the lion’s share of gun deaths.

2. Firearms are not the most popular method of committing suicide in Canada.

Just 14% of suicides involved firearms in 2013 (the latest year statistics are available):

3. Firearms are not uniquely lethal. Several methods, including jumping (whether from a height or in front of a train), hanging, and drowning are all approximately as lethal as shooting. Each of these methods, including shooting, has a fatality rate in the 75-85% range.

4. The major factors driving suicide are mental illness, depression, alcohol or drug abuse; not firearms ownership. Anyone suffering from these problems cannot legally acquire a firearm and can even have his or her firearms confiscated.

Suicide is a symptom of deeper social and emotional distress. Most professionals agree it is counterproductive to focus on a specific method. The best approach to reduce suicide rates in a community is to pursue a multiple track strategy. That entails offering psychiatric help to anyone suspected of being depressed or suicidal, taking care to ensure harm reduction respects due process, and working to understand and ameliorate the social conditions that underlie high suicide rates in the community. The aim of suicide reduction should be reducing the number of human beings who die, not just those who die after a loud noise.

5. It is a national embarrassment that Aboriginal Canadians have such a uniquely high risk of committing suicide compared with the general population, although not typically with firearms.

Research has found that suicide rates among Aboriginal Canadians is about twice that of the general population. Suicide rates are much higher in Nunavut than any other province or territory.

Aboriginal suicide

6. The most common suicide method is hanging. One study found that hanging accounted for almost half of all deaths in First Nation males (49.2%) and females (45.8%), followed by firearms in males (35.3%) and drug overdose (30%) in females.

7. Even if there was a high correlation between jurisdictions with higher proportion of gun owners and suicide rates, that should not argue for restricting access to firearms for the general public. Very few firearms owners commit suicide. However, a high correlation might well support targeted efforts to remove firearms from the homes of those judged to be imminently suicidal.

8. In Point Blank, an award-winning review of the research on guns and gun laws, professor Gary Kleck summarizes research on suicide by saying there’s no support for a strong relationship between any general gun law and overall suicide rates. Previous research has indicated that while gun ownership levels are consistently related to the rate of gun suicides, they are unrelated to total suicide rate. That is, where guns are common, people will more frequently use them to kill themselves, but this does not affect the total number of people who die. Apparently, gun availability affects only method choice, not the frequency of fatal outcomes.

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