10/28/2014 11:36 am ET Updated Dec 28, 2014

Can Gun Control Reduce Suicides?

Piotr Powietrzynski via Getty Images

Whenever a particularly horrendous shooting occurs, like the one at Marysville High School in Washington last Friday, we redouble our efforts to find a way to deal with the carnage caused by guns. We take as a given the correlation between more gun control laws and lower rates of gun violence, and we assume that since most people obey laws, if we pass a law prohibiting or controlling the ownership or use of guns, the law will have its desired effect. Except in the case of gun violence I'm not so sure this is correct, nor am I sure that the data proffered up to justify this argument says what gun safety advocates believe it says. Case in point: a new report issued by the Violence Policy Center that finds higher rates of gun violence in states with fewer gun control laws.

The report, actually a press release, is based on the 2012 mortality data issued by the CDC and available for viewing/analysis online. When I looked at the CDC data used to calculate gun violence, the raw numbers agreed with the numbers published by the VPC, but I found myself asking questions that simply don't fit into the neat more laws = less gun violence paradigm that the VPC and other gun safety advocates firmly believe. For example, the VPC correctly notes that overall gun deaths increased from 2011 to 2012. But gun accidents declined a tiny bit, while homicides and suicides both moved slightly up. The more alarming news is that gun suicides account for nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths, a percentage that has been steadily climbing each year while, until recently, gun homicides have been coming down.

One of the major reasons for the polarization between the two sides in the gun violence debate is that one side, the NRA side, refuses to admit that suicide has anything to do with gun violence at all. Suicide is never mentioned in the phony safety campaigns they run in conjunction with the NSSF, and they are hard at work trying to gag physicians who want to talk to their patients about guns, even when patients exhibit obvious symptoms of mental distress. But the reason why states like Wyoming and Montana rank in the top six states for gun violence has nothing to do with homicide, it's a function of elevated suicide rates which are acts of gun violence that have little, if anything to do with gun safety laws at all. Does the fact that gun suicide rates in the Northeast are lowest of any region reflect stricter legal controls over guns? Or does it say something about disparities in mental health treatment between various sections of the United States?

I'm also not sure that using state-level gun violence rates and then tying these rates to strict or lax gun laws gets us to where we want to be, namely, a society which experiences less gun violence. For example, my state -- Massachusetts -- has the lowest rate of gun violence of all 50 states, and it is known as a state with fairly strong gun control laws. But the city of Springfield recently recorded its 14th gun homicide for 2014, and if the killing continues at that pace for the remainder of the year, the city will end up with an annual gun homicide rate of about 16 per 100,000, higher than 44 of the 50 states.

Don't get me wrong. I support the good work of the VPC and other like-minded folks to find ways to curb the awful carnage created by guns. But if we are going to look for lawful solutions to this we have to be sure that we really understand the problem the law will try to correct. In the case of gun violence, I'm not so sure that the problem is as simple or obvious as it seems.