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Mechanism vs. Cause
Why an Attitude of "Blame the Guns" Would Misdirect Public Health Funds

by Sean Oberle

A brief mention of firearm access in an Oct. 17 Associate Press story on rural suicides reminds me that we should brace ourselves for an increasing number of salvos from the gun grabbers on the topic of suicide.

The reason is that plummeting U.S. homicide rates, both gun and non-gun, have hit 35-year lows and promise to fall even lower. Thus the grabbers must resort to the higher suicide numbers to frighten people.

Already, we have seen some examples of this tactic. The Violence Policy Center regularly points out that suicides account for the most gun deaths (17,424 vs. 11,798 gun homicides in 1998, according to the Centers for Disease Control).

As well, a state-level gun control group - Iowans for the Prevention of Gun Violence - last spring released a "study" that "found" that from 1996 to 1998, firearm suicides accounted for 81% of gun deaths in Iowa. "The results of this study," conclude the Midwestern do-gooders, "dramatically point to the need to treat gun violence as a public health issue rather than as a crime issue" (

The main problem with the VPC/IPGV approach, as you probably are well aware, is that there is little if any correlation between gun access and suicide rates, much less any established causal connection.

But going beyond that obvious problem, we see that VPC and IPGV seem to be working under the assumption that gunshot suicides are a subgroup of only one statistical category: gunshot deaths. Rather, they are a subgroup shared by two categories of death - gunshot (which include other motives than suicide) and suicides (which include other mechanisms than gunshot).

This limited view probably is due to the grabbers’ premise that guns are a cause rather than a mechanism. Rather than looking at the statistics to get an understanding of what is happening, they begin with the foregone conclusion that guns ought to be controlled. Thus the statistics are nothing more than a circular logic means to demonstrate that foregone conclusion. Once they find something that seems to prove them right, they stop looking.

Note they also fail to look at trends but simply take a static view of one time period. This is significant. Review of the trends in the category they ignore (all suicides) reveals something rather startling: While the rate of gunshot suicides in the 1990s declined by about 1%-2% per year, the rate of non-gun suicides increased by 1%-2%. (Source

What that means is that non-gun suicides are growing as a portion of overall suicides. If that trend continues, in a few years, non-gun suicides will surpass gun suicides. Therefore, a mechanism targeting approach to suicide prevention would ignore more than half of all suicides or would involve the absurdity of attacking ropes, pills and rubber hoses as much as guns.

In fact, this growing non-gun suicide rate is slowing the decline of overall suicides substantially – as the gun suicide rate declined 12% from 1993 to 1998, the overall rate of suicide declined only 6%. Moreover, as non-gun suicides rise even further, they eventually will reverse any progress made in the firearm subcategory, and suicides will grow overall even as gunshot suicides decline.

Just such a problem is occurring in Australia, where suicides are skyrocketing (up 10% from 1996 to 1998), according to the Australian Institute of Health & Welfare. This is occurring despite a dozen years of declining firearm suicides (

According to the institute, the improvements in gunshot suicide have been negated by parallel increases in vehicle exhaust suicides. Meanwhile, hanging suicides have skyrocketed. (This should not be taken as commentary on the recent Australian gun laws since these trends preceded those laws.)

Thus any mechanism targeting approach becomes a morbid version of that old arcade game “whack-a-mole” in which you try to hit a puppet that pops out of numerous holes – you never know which one – and while you aim at one hole, the puppet already has retreated and come out of another hole.

But the ultimate failure of an American gun-control approach to suicide prevention is the fact that mental health records are rightly subject to nearly inviolate privacy. Thus our options for "limited, common sense" gun controls would be few. Background checks, for instance, would be useless without opening up medical records, and any attempt to do that would raise the ire of the medical community.

In fact, the only way to stop gun suicides with gun control is to successfully ban guns. Indeed, this is one reason that Violence Policy Center gives in its call for a handgun ban. However, a gun ban would cost hundreds of billions of dollars and an army of workers and enforcers. (See my article, Bait and Switch, at

Worse, it would suck resources not only from suicide prevention, but from the already successful violence prevention efforts that we have in place. And after all that damage, it would accomplish nothing except – perhaps – lowering the number of gun suicides. The number of total suicides would remain just as high if not rise.

Remember, the goal ought to be lowering suicides overall, not just a subcategory of suicide. I doubt that anyone whom a suicide victim leaves behind would take much solace in the fact that "at least he didn't use a gun to kill himself."

The bottom line is that just as our successful efforts against criminal violence and gun accidents have involved attacking behavior rather than mechanisms, our successful effort against the unthinkable act of suicide must – must – target the causes of suicide rather than a popular mechanism.

We cannot allow the grabbers to divert public health resources away from that.

Sean Oberle is a featured writer with whose archive is kept here: Distribution permitted and encouraged. Please say you saw it first on