Chart via The Atlantic Cities
The close connection between gun ownership and suicide has indeed been documented in several detailed state-level studies. A Harvard School of Public Health study found gun ownership to be the overriding factor in accounting for state-by-state differences in suicide after controlling for mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and other factors. A website for a Harvard suicide-prevention campaign explains: “The higher suicide rates result from higher firearm suicides; the non-firearm suicide rate is about equal across states.” The Harvard School of Public Health News, which summarized the main findings of the study, notes that “in states where guns were prevalent—as in Wyoming, where 63 percent of households reported owning guns—rates of suicide were higher. The inverse was also true: where gun ownership was less common, suicide rates were also lower.”
This type of argument — that the ease and availability of means of committing suicide leads to an increased number of suicides — always reminds me of the curious case of coal gas in the UK. In the 1950’s and 60’s, the change from coal gas (which has a high CO2 level toxic to humans) to natural gas (which contains virtually no CO2) lead to a dramatic decrease in the overall suicide rate. Norman Kreitman, author of The Coal Gas Study, marveled at
how the removal of a single agent of self-destruction can have had such far-reaching consequences. There is no shortage of exits from this life; it would seem that anyone bent on self-destruction must eventually succeed, yet it is also quite possible, given the ambivalence (or multivalence) of many suicides, that a failed attempt serves as a catharsis leading to profound psychological change. For others it may be that the scenario of suicide specifies the use of a particular method, and that if this is not available actual suicide is then less likely. Virtually nothing is known about such questions.
I can’t help but draw a parallel with the firearms-and-suicide problem in the US and neither could The New York Times. Even something as simple as keeping the gun locked away in a place separated from its ammunition might erect a sufficient barrier to deter some suicides.
I first learned of this study and the profound interplay of environment/ability on suicide rates from Stephen Fry’s BBC documentary “The Secret Life Of The Manic Depressive.” It includes a fascinating interview with Carrie Fisher. Worth a Watch.