We Wanted to Know Whether Fewer Guns Lead to Fewer Suicides. Here’s What We Found.

Murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Dec. 12 2013 11:30 PM

It’s Simple: Fewer Guns, Fewer Suicides

Two scientists explore a decade of data to find the tie between gun ownership and suicide in America.

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Suicide is a leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults, and limiting access to guns during those formative, sometimes unsteady years can have a real effect on suicides. In Israel most 18- to 21-year-olds are drafted into the Israeli Defense Forces and provided with military training—and weapons. Suicide among young IDF members is a serious problem. In an attempt to reduce suicides, the IDF tried a new policy in 2005, prohibiting most soldiers from bringing their weapons home over the weekends. Dr. Gad Lubin, the chief mental health officer for the IDF, and his co-authors estimate that this simple change reduced the total suicide rate among young IDF members by a stunning 40 percent. It’s worth noting that even though you might think that soldiers home for the weekend could easily delay suicide by a day or two, the authors did not find an increase in suicide rates during the weekdays. These results are consistent with interviews with near-fatal suicide survivors, who often say their decision was spontaneous and who typically go on to live long lives.

If more guns lead to more suicides, should we ban guns as Australia did? Not necessarily. We find that a 1 percentage-point increase in the household gun-ownership rate increases suicides by at most 0.9 percent. There are 114 million households in the U.S., so a 1 percentage-point increase in ownership means approximately 1.1 million more households with guns. Since there are relatively few suicides, this translates into 345 more suicides, at most. In this sense, guns are relatively benign. Most guns are never involved in a suicide or a homicide.

But lives have great value. Government agencies such as the EPA value a statistical life at around $8.4 million (2006 dollars updated to 2012). Calculating the value of life is probably something only an economist would ever think to do, but it's a useful exercise. When evaluating everything from how much to spend on straightening roads or researching cancer drugs, we need to have some idea, however crude, of the value of lives lost and saved. At $8.4 million each the value of 345 lost lives is almost $3 billion. Considering the value of life tells us that the true price of guns is higher than the monetary price by at least $2,635, the amount needed to be able to compensate for the expected loss of life. At that price, fewer people should want to buy guns.

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Guns in the home are a risk factor for suicide, and the risk is especially great if there is a depressed adolescent living at home. Unfortunately, people don’t always weigh risks carefully. In one study, even when strongly recommended by mental health professionals to do so, most parents of a depressed adolescent didn’t remove their guns from their home. It’s also disturbing that guns were least likely to be removed when the father of the depressed adolescent had a drinking or drug problem of his own.

Suicide gets less attention, less funding, and less concern than many other kinds of deaths. San Francisco spent $26.5 million installing a new median barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge even though there hasn't been a fatal head-on car crash on the bridge in 12 years. But no funds have been spent on a system to help prevent suicides, despite the fact that 10 people died committing suicide on the bridge in August of 2013 alone. It’s true, of course, that unlike homicides or accidents, suicide is a choice, but it’s a choice often made under the duress of crisis or depression. Moreover, suicide is not chosen by the friends, siblings, children, spouse, or parents of the person who commits suicide. Losing a loved one to suicide is a traumatic and painful experience. Suicide and its relationship to mental health, social isolation, and firearm access deserve our full attention and concern.

Justin Briggs is a graduate student at George Mason University.

Alex Tabarrok is Bartley J. Madden Chair and professor of economics at George Mason University.

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