R. Douglas Fields
Source: R. Douglas Fields

In an article in the July 17, 2016 edition of the Washington Post, "Want to Control Suicide?  Control Guns," Kim Soffen argues that to control suicide in the U.S., stricter gun control, like that in Britain, Canada, France, and Australia, is required.  Extrapolating from statistics on suicide rates from firearms in these countries, the Post concludes that the suicide rate in the U. S. would drop by 20-38 percent if the stricter gun control laws in these countries were implemented here.  The facts do not support the argument. 

There is no relation between suicide rate and gun ownership rates around the world.  According to the 2016 World Health Statistics report, (2) suicide rates in the four countries cited as having restrictive gun control laws have suicide rates that are comparable to that in the U. S.:  Australia, 11.6, Canada, 11.4, France, 15.8, UK, 7.0, and USA 13.7 suicides/100,000.  By comparison, Japan has among the highest suicide rates in the world, 23.1/100,000, but gun ownership is extremely rare, 0.6 guns/100 people.   

Suicide is a mental health issue.  If guns are not available other means are used.  Poisoning, in fact, is the most common method of suicide for U. S. females according to the Washington Post (34 % of suicides), and suffocation the second most common method for males (27%). 

Secondly, gun ownership rates in France and Canada are not low, as is implied in the Post article.  The rate of gun ownership in the U. S. is indeed high at 88.8 guns/100 residents, but gun ownership rates are also among the world’s highest in the other countries cited.  Gun ownership rates in these countries are are as follows:  Australia, 15, Canada, 30.8, France, 31.2, and UK 6.2 per 100 residents. (3,4) Gun ownership rates in Saudia Arabia are comparable to that in Canada and France, with 37.8 guns per 100 Saudi residents, yet the lowest suicide rate in the world is in Saudia Arabia (0.3 suicides per 100,000).

Third, recent statistics in the state of Florida show that nearly one third of the guns used in suicides are obtained illegally, putting these firearm deaths beyond control through gun laws.(5)

Fourth, the primary factors affecting suicide rates are personal stresses, cultural, economic, religious factors and demographics.  According to the WHO statistics, the highest rates of suicide in the world are in the Republic of Korea, with 36.8 suicides per 100,000, but India, Japan, Russia, and Hungary all have rates above 20 per 100,000; roughly twice as high as the U.S. and the four countries that are the basis for the Post’s calculation that gun control would reduce U.S. suicide rates by 20 to 38 percent.  Lebanon, Oman, and Iraq all have suicide rates below 1.1 per 100,000 people--less than 1/10 the suicide rate in the U. S., and Afghanistan, Algeria, Jamaica, Haiti, and Egypt have low suicide rates that are below 4 per 100,000 in contrast to 13.7 suicides/100,000 in the U. S. 

Gun control is a separate issue.  The arguments on both sides of the gun control debate are well known, and neither side is well served by specious arguments.  Neither can the tragedy of suicide be addressed by misdiagnosing the problem.

Reducing suicide rates in the U. S. is not as simple as instituting more restrictive gun control laws.  Suicide is a complex issue, best addressed by grappling with the difficult problems of social and economic disparities and better access to mental healthcare. (6)

Sources

1.  Soffen, Kim (2016)  Want to control suicide?  Control guns.  The Washington Post, July 17, 2016, p. B2.

2. World Health Statistics, 2016:  http://apps.who.int/gho/data/node.sdg.3-4-data?lang=en

3.  Council on Foreign Relations:  http://www.cfr.org/society-and-culture/us-gun-policy-global-comparisons/...

4.  Countries with the most guns list has some surprises.  CBC News, Jan 8, 2016

http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/small-arms-survey-countries-with-the-most-g...

6.  Swanson, J.W. et al., (2016)  Gun violence, mental illness, and laws that prohibit gun possession:  Evidence from two Florida Counties.  Health Aff (Millwood) June 1, 35: 1067-75.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27269024

6.  Fields, R.D. (2016)  The Neuroscience of Violence, Again.  BrainFacts.org July 12, 2014,  http://blog.brainfacts.org/2016/07/the-neuroscience-of-violence-again/#....

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