The Corner

The Complex Question of Firearms and the Suicide Rate

The Washington Post notes that:

Gun suicides are becoming far more common than gun-related homicides, accounting for 64 percent of all gun deaths in 2012, according to new statistics. And the suicides have become especially common among older white men.

There were 32,288 deaths from firearm violence in the United States in 2012, a rate that’s remained relatively stable over the past few years. But since 2006, gun suicides have increased from 57 percent of all firearm-related deaths, according to research published this month in the Annual Review of Public Health.

Gun deaths by suicide have outpaced homicide-related suicides in the United States over the past 35 years. But since 2006, the decrease in gun-related homicides have almost been matched by the increase of gun suicides, according to the study from Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California-Davis.

It is good to see this being acknowledged. For obvious reasons, anti-gun groups tend to lump the two numbers together, thereby implying that 30,000 people are murdered with firearms each year. Actually, they’re not, which complicates the question of “what to do about the number of deaths” considerably.

The numbers here are all over the place. As the Post records, there are serious racial disparities within the murder record:

Young black adult men, ages 20-29, are 20 times more likely than white men of the same age to be killed by a firearm. And the gun homicide rate is at least five times higher compared to Hispanic men ages 20-29.

And yet African-Americans are far less likely to kill themselves than are whites — between half and one-third as likely, in fact. The balance between murder and homicide varies by age, too. While young people are more likely to be killed by someone wielding a firearm than to commit suicide with one, older people are far more likely to take their own life with a gun than to be murdered with one.

In other words, the data is complex, as are both the likely remedies and the philosophical questions that they raise. It makes sense, for example, for the state to have an interest in stopping one citizen from taking the life of another. But should a government be in the business of trying to stop suicide? And if it should, how does this aim relate to the law, to the broader constitutional questions involved, and to other interests such as self-defense, presumption of innocence, and — yes — to the right to take one’s life? Answering these is tough, especially in a country that has this many guns and that still (thankfully) takes its right to keep and bear arms seriously.

We see a similarly elaborate story internationally. It is often asserted that the ease with which Americans can get hold of a firearm helps to explain their country’s suicide rate. Is this true? Well, it’s difficult to tell. Japan — a country with extremely strict gun-control laws — has twice the suicide rate as the United States, while Cuba and France have suicide rates that are slightly above the American average. Culture matters. On the other hand, more restrictionist nations such as New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Ireland, Sweden, and Germany do have rates that are slightly — albeit only slightly – lower than America’s. Switzerland, meanwhile, suffers fewer suicides than Britain, even though large swaths of its citizenry are armed with automatic weapons.

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