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by Iain Murray
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
December 14, 1999
(source site)

RESEARCH published in the New England Journal of Medicine seemed to prove that buying a handgun makes it more likely that you'll kill yourself. Gun-control advocates immediately leapt on the study as more evidence that society needs stricter regulations -- it "goes a long way to blowing away the argument that handguns are protectors," said a spokesperson for the Violence Policy Center, quoted in the Los Angeles Times. But the study does not prove what the headlines claimed.

More important, those headlines miss the point that suicide is about more than gun control. The problem is getting better, but it is still more serious than murder.

The study looked at whether recent (legal) gun purchasers in California -- an overwhelmingly prosperous, young, white, male sample -- killed themselves shortly after buying a gun.

The actual number of suicides among recent purchasers was very small -- only 114 out of 238,292 purchasers in the survey period killed themselves with a handgun (and we do not know whether it was with the particular handgun purchased).

In such a small group, the potential for statistics being skewed by "false positives" (where the suicide victim has purchased a handgun, but the two events are not connected) is so much greater.

The statistical significance of the findings is therefore slightly suspect.

The Journal of Medicine was also at pains to point out in an editorial that "the current findings do not demonstrate that the purchase of a firearm caused suicidal behavior or actually increased the risk of suicide among those who purchased handguns."

IN all probability, the suicide rate for recent purchasers of rat poison is greater than that of the general population.

Having decided to commit suicide, the person in question is likely to use the most efficient method. Someone who has rat poison handy will take that.

A gun owner will more likely use a gun than jump in front of a train, the method being quicker and more efficient.

This conclusion is backed up by existing evidence.

According to Gary Kleck, professor of criminology at Florida State University, out of 13 previous studies, nine found a significant association between gun ownership and gun suicide, but only one found an association between gun ownership and total suicide.

In other words, the more guns there are, the more likely a suicide is to use a gun, but the number of guns has no effect on the overall level of suicide.

This is borne out internationally -- Japan, Sweden and Germany -- with small numbers of guns in comparison to the United States, have higher suicide rates (16.72, 15.75 and 15.64 per 100,000 respectively compared with the 12.06 rate here).

It is safe to say that buying a gun does not mean that you're more likely to go from being content to being suicidal.

Nor does the study blow away the defensive argument for guns. An interesting observation that does emerge from it is that the risk of death from homicide was lower among recent gun purchasers.

This may mean that gun owners are more able to protect themselves; it may also mean that legal gun purchasers are less likely to be victimized in any event -- unsurprising given their higher socio-economic status.

BUT to claim that the study blows "away the argument that handguns are protectors" is flying in the face of what the study actually says.

Finally, in one piece of good news, it is important to note that society is getting less and less likely to kill itself with guns. Figures released on Nov. 18 by the CDC show that the number of suicides using firearms has dropped from 19,213 in 1993 to 17,767 in 1997, a decline of 10 percent.

Intentional self-inflicted gun injuries have decreased even further, from 6,514 to 3,699 in the same period -- a decrease of 45 percent. This echoes a dramatic decrease in the number of homicides and assaults using firearms in those same years.

A lowering suicide rate is undoubtedly a good thing, but to think that gun control laws can magically reduce the rate further is going too far.

Suicide is far too serious a subject to be used as a pawn in the struggle over firearms.

In terms of the cost in human lives, it inflicts far more damage on society than homicide. It is about time it was given the attention it really deserves.