Packing Protection or Packing Suicide Risk?

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, July 7, 2008

Seventeen years ago, a couple of criminologists at the University of Maryland published an interesting paper about the 1976 District ban on handguns -- a ban that was recently overturned by the Supreme Court on the grounds it was inimical to the constitutional right of Americans to bear arms to protect themselves.

The researchers employed a simple procedure: They tabulated all the suicides that had taken place in Washington between 1968 and 1987. Colin Loftin and David McDowall found that the gun ban correlated with an abrupt 25 percent decline in suicides in the city.

Loftin and McDowall, who now work at the University at Albany, part of the State University of New York, also tabulated suicide rates in Maryland and Virginia over the same period, to test whether suicide rates just happened to be declining in the entire region. There was no difference in the suicide rate in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs before and after the D.C. gun ban. The researchers also tabulated the kinds of suicide that declined in Washington: The 25 percent decline was entirely driven by a decline in firearm-related suicide.

There are many ways to read the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, but all the versions point to one core idea: Americans have the right to own guns to protect themselves against outside threats, whether the danger comes from a school shooter, a vicious mugger, a robber breaking into a house, a lawless neighborhood -- even the government itself.

What the authors of the Second Amendment did not foresee, however, is that when people own a gun, they unwittingly raise their risk of getting hurt and killed -- because the odds that they will one day use their gun to commit suicide are much larger than the odds they will use their gun to defend themselves against intruders, muggers and killers.

States with high rates of gun ownership -- Alabama, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Montana, Wyoming and New Mexico -- have suicide rates that are more than double the suicide rate in states with low rates of gun ownership, such as Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, Hawaii and New York, said Matthew Miller, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health. The difference is not because people in gun-owning states are more suicidal than people in states where fewer people own guns, but that suicide attempts in states with lots of guns produce many more completed suicides.

"The evidence is overwhelming," said David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at Harvard. "There are a dozen case-controlled studies, all of which show the gun in the home is a risk factor for suicide for the gun owner, for the spouse, for the gun owner's children."

Turning a gun on ourselves, or having a family member turn a gun on someone in the household, doesn't intuitively feel as real a risk as muggers, robbers and murderers. Given the choice between trusting our intuitions and trusting the evidence, most of us go with our gut.

If TV dramas about cops and violence were to actually depict the reality of how death and mayhem usually unfold in America, however, these are the scenarios that would stream into our homes each night: An elderly widower, lonely beyond words, shoots himself. A middle-aged executive, who has lost everything in an economic downturn, throws herself off a tall building. Two teenagers pull a Romeo-and-Juliet-style suicide as a protest against an uncaring world.

The reason we can be sure that suicide -- and not assaults, break-ins, muggings, school shootings and other fatal attacks by sinister strangers -- would account for most of the stories is that suicide dwarfs homicide as a killer in the United States. There were 32,637 suicides in the country in 2005, the latest year for which statistics are available. That year, the collective homicidal mayhem caused by domestic abusers, violent criminals, gang fights, drug wars, break-ins, shootouts with cops, accidental gun discharges and cold, premeditated murder produced 18,538 deaths.

Even the risk of terrorism doesn't begin to come close to the risk of suicide.

Only a tiny fraction of the 400,000 suicide attempts that bring Americans into emergency rooms each year involve guns. But because guns are so lethal, 17,002 of all suicides in 2005 -- 52 percent -- involved people shooting themselves.

The grimness of these statistics repeats itself endlessly, year after year, but makes no difference to our collective fantasies and fears about violence -- and the reasons millions of people buy handguns for "protection." Muggers, robbers and gangs feel scary. Most people don't think of themselves as potential threats -- after all, doesn't suicide happen only to the insane?

Overwhelmingly, the research suggests suicide is usually an act of impulsive desperation -- an impulse that passes. Most people who survive suicide attempts do not go on to kill themselves later on. Gun owners are no more likely than non-gun-owners to be suicidal. But within the window of a mad impulse, people who have lethal means at their disposal are much more likely to kill themselves than those who lack such means.

"If you bought a gun today, I could tell you the risk of suicide to you and your family members is going to be two- to tenfold higher over the next 20 years," Harvard's Miller said. "There are not many things you can do to increase your risk of dying tenfold."

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