Guns and Preventable Suicides

Warning: what you are about to read is mostly speculation. Take with a grain of salt. Don’t trust my numbers blindly. Find your own data.

The suicide rate in the United States is twelve per one hundred thousand inhabitants. That means that every year, around 38,000 people kill themselves. About one hundred per day. Of course, not all suicides are equal. For example, some are the result of a carefully planned decision. Others are not so planned. Perhaps they are not spontaneous, but they are more preventable. I’m not going to claim expertise in the subject, most of what I know comes from conversations with my father; he was a psychiatrist who treated suicidal patients for decades.

Continuing the line of my recent posts, I decided to plot suicide rates vs. household gun ownership by US states:

suicides

Sources:

The above chart surprised me. The correlation between the two variables is pretty high (0.6). What’s going on here? Here’s the first hypothesis that comes to my mind: suicidal people with easy access to guns are more likely to actually kill themselves.

I can imagine a scenario in which someone crosses an emotional threshold, grabs a gun from a drawer and kills himself (the majority are men). In a parallel world there is no gun in the drawer, this person would not be able to commit suicide so easily. Perhaps he would go out and drive his car into a wall, but this would give him more time to reconsider. The time elapsed between deciding to shoot oneself and being dead can be very short.

If you believe that these people should not die, then you could use this hypothesis to make the case for gun control. The majority of US gun deaths are in fact suicides, and firearm suicide is by far the most common method, so this is not an insignificant problem.

Of course there are other possible interpretations of the data. Maybe people in certain states are more predisposed to suicide AND to own guns? Occam’s razor would say no, but it’s worth a look. On one extreme we see states like Montana, Wyoming and Alaska. On the other, New York, New Jersey, Maryland. There are certainly demographic differences across these states: population density, income levels, etc. Could Montanans be three times more suicidal than New Yorkers due to those factors? I don’t know, and I can’t rule it out.

It’s also interesting to observe what happens across countries. I scraped Wikipedia’s List of countries by suicide rate¬†and plotted that against Number of guns per capita by country:

suicides2

In this case, the correlation is almost nonexistent (0.08). Of course, no other country comes close to the US in guns per capita so this is not a complete surprise. Also, the data is different: this is total guns per capita, not percentage of households with guns.

At this point, all I have is the question: would it be possible to prevent thousands of deaths every year by making guns more inaccessible to suicidal individuals? Would it be worth the effort? I wish I could offer answers to these questions, but I’m just one guy with some free time. All my data and “insights” come from Google, Wikipedia, and R. What data is out there that I could be missing?

Final note: this is a very sensitive topic. If you are going to comment on this post, please be reasonable and rational.

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