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The Gun-Suicide Myth

Analyzing the availability of guns as a suicide risk factor in the USA vs. Japan

What are the facts regarding suicide and guns? Is a completed suicide more likely if a gun is in the house or available? If you are pro gun-control you would site a US statistic like: 5.6% of suicide attempts are by gun, but 55% of successful suicides are by firearms. You would conclude that easy access to a gun increases the chances tenfold that a suicide attempt will be fatal. 

Seems fairly straight forward. That is, until you look at other countries with strict gun control laws. 

Japan holds some of the most rigid and inflexible gun control laws in the democratic world. Sportsmen are allowed shotguns only, for hunting and skeet shooting -- period. These sportsmen can only obtain permission to buy a firearm after a lengthy bureaucratic screening that includes: Classes, interviews, written exams, shooting tests, background check, drug testing and a psychological evaluation to asses for mental illness.

They even check the applicants' relatives for criminal activity and mental illness. If a Japanese citizen does not pass this rigorous screening, he cannot own a gun. And, without the government's permission, it’s against the law for a Japanese citizen to even HOLD a gun.

With such strict laws limiting firearm access, if guns were primarily responsible for successful suicides, then logic would dictate that Japan would have one of the lowest suicide rates in the world. Right? Wrong. Japan has averaged over 30,000 suicides annually for the past 14 years. That’s almost 24 suicides per 100,000 people. In America the rate is 12 per 100,000 people, half that of Japan.

Japanese who decide to end their life chose jumping in front of a train, hanging, medication overdose, leaping off a high building or the latest craze -- using common household products to create the poisonous gas hydrogen sulfide.

Statistically most completed suicides in the US are indeed by firearms, simply because they're lethal and readily available. But if they were not, someone who was determined to end his life would find a way to do it, à la Japan.

There are many ways to attempt suicide with varying degrees of success. I’ve found the potential lethality of the attempt is directly related to how serious the individual is about ending their life. I’ve seen patients that have scratched their wrist a few times with a dull knife-- barely breaking the skin, who end up in the ER and say they were trying to kill themselves. Others will take 15 Advil, call their ex-boyfriend and say they just over-dosed in a suicide attempt and then wait for rescue. We call those ‘suicide gestures’. The person had no intent to die. Rather, it was attention seeking behavior.

On the other hand, as I discuss in my last blog, there are people like Mindy McCready, who have made the decision to end it and don’t tell a soul about what they plan to do. They choose a lethal method; be it by gun, hanging, jumping, leaping or poison gas…. and then they do it.

Suicide is often preventable with early recognition, proper mental health treatment and a strong support system. But we are kidding ourselves to think that removing access to a gun will make any difference to the suicide rate in the US. I wish it were that easy.

Dale Archer, M.D., is a clinical psychiatrist and author of The New York Times bestseller, Better Than Normal: How What Makes You Different Can Make You Exceptional.

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