09/16/2013 06:51 pm ET | Updated Nov 16, 2013

Guns and Suicide: Worse Than Just a Means

Numerous articles by academics and in the general media have expressed a concern that access to guns contributes to the number of persons who succeed in killing themselves because they are so effective and easy to use. A famous study made in 2007 by the researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that high-gun states had a rate of firearm suicide 3-1/2 times that of low-gun states. At the same time the non-firearm suicide rate was almost the same in the two sets of states. This leaves little room to doubt that firearm access is a risk factor for suicide. This post is to argue that the having guns is even worse because of the psychological effects on people from knowing they are present.

The NRA in its fact-sheet titled "Suicide and Firearms" states:

Gun owners are notably self-reliant and exhibit a willingness to take definitive action when they believe it to be in their own self-interest. Such action may include ending their own life when the time is deemed appropriate.

This attitude, so cynically expressed by the NRA, shows their indifference to the deaths and injuries from firearms. Never underestimate the power of suggestion, whether from the gun culture as represented above or from the gun itself. A gun in the hand, or the house, makes a strong suggestion to shoot someone, but shooting other people is forbidden most of the time. It is less so in "stand your ground" states but it can be a long wait for someone to give the excuse.

Imagine a despondent person sitting on his bed. He takes a gun from the drawer, checks that it is loaded and puts it to his head. After a few minutes he puts it back into the drawer. He does this every day and at any time he could pull the trigger on a second's impulse. Now, try to imagine this with a rope made of bed sheets. Tying the knots, looking for an attachment point up high, getting up on a chair. It's a scene for a bad comedy show. Guns are different.

Why aren't the number of non-gun suicides lower in high gun states? If the effect of guns on the suicide rate is just a matter of being a convenient means then gun suicide should replace non-gun suicide in many cases. Because of their powerful suggestive nature, I think that the presence of guns may create such a suggestion of death as the solution to problems that it adds that number of even non-gun suicides. The suicidal attitude that the NRA refers to in the quote above may come from presence of guns itself rather than from some preexisting "self-reliance."

The association of guns and suicide is part of our culture and our language. Who has not seen people point a finger to their head and go "bang" to illustrate a point. It's very hard to keep from hearing oneself saying things like "they ought to shoot themselves." There is even the principle of "Chekov's gun," where a gun shown in the first act of a play must be used in a later act. This is because a gun is too powerful a symbol to be ignored. Handguns especially have an intimacy which allows them to enter into peoples thoughts. They are used for suicide in far greater proportion than their numbers among firearms.

It is also true that firearms are an extraordinary convenient and efficient way for a person to end their own life. Their 85 percent "case fatality rate" is higher than any other means in the US. Gun apologists argue that suffocation is almost as high at 69% but these figures are based on deaths and emergency room visits. It is easy to see that a failed gun attempt will produce a wound sure to require emergency medical attention but a person rescued or awakening from a hanging or other suffocation attempt may not need such care.

Numerous studies have found that suicide is usually an impulsive act and that small additions to the amount of time or preparation needed make a significant reduction to the number of attempts. When the Duke Ellington Bridge in Washington, D.C. which had a waist high wall added a protective fence, there was no increase in the number of people who jumped off the nearby Taft Bridge. That bridge has a shoulder high wall which was enough to discourage would be jumpers anyway. For guns, even small things like locks and separate storage of ammunition would be important. Claims that taking away guns would lead to the substitution of other means are refuted by studies that show that most persons who fail in a serious attempt do not go on to kill themselves at a later time.

When a person dies from a self-inflicted gunshot, the damage done to the survivors is immense. Decades and even generations later people are still in pain. The person who dies at a bad moment in their struggles with life has temporarily forgotten the effects they are about to make. It is hard to believe that this is intentional and, as a consequence, it is hard to believe that the act it self is truly intentional.

Most people believe that they are not likely to kill themselves and most are right. But being probably right and being safe are two different things. If one does not have extraordinary risks in their surroundings and activities, risks much greater than simply living in a "bad neighborhood," then the risk from having a gun, especially a handgun, to oneself and to others far outweighs any benefit from possible self defense. Those who are not currently hunting or target shooting on a regular basis but have guns because of inheritance or a former interest should consider getting rid of them. Having guns around is generally unwise.