Guns don’t cause suicide.
Just as we can’t blame all 15,000 murders per year on firearms, we can’t attribute the United States’ suicides, over 44,000 per year, entirely to its high rate of gun ownership and availability. While guns do play a part, it’s more important to consider the underlying causes of suicide rather than merely restricting access to guns.
Many developed countries have high rates of suicide despite having strict firearms regulation. Japan, a nation with the lowest rate of gun ownership among all developed countries, has a suicide rate nearly 50 percent higher than the United States. Nearly every type of firearm is outlawed in South Korea, but at 29 suicides per 100,000 people, Korea’s suicide rate is the highest among developed countries — over double that of the United States.
Australia’s National Agreement on Firearms and Buyback Program in 1996 is seemingly a good example of how limiting the number of guns in a country can reduce suicides. But upon closer examination of a graph that tracks rates of suicides before and after the buyback, it’s clear that suicides committed using a firearm in Australia were already declining for nearly a decade before the buyback.
But more recently, suicides in Australia climbed to a 13-year high by the end of 2015, a trend Australian Mental Health Commissioner Ian Hickie attributed to untreated depression and a suffering manufacturing sector — meaning even if we consider the buyback to be an initial success, it failed to decrease suicide rates long term. While decreasing guns in a country may limit suicides temporarily, the Australian case shows us that a more systematic approach to treating mental health is key to reducing suicide permanently.
Gun control advocates whose support for stricter reform lies mainly in reducing suicides ignore the complex and multifaceted mental health, economic and cultural issues that persist beyond just the availability of guns. A heavier focus on economic and health predeterminants affecting suicide rates should be the priority when we consider how to combat suicide.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention is working to maximize referrals of at-risk individuals to trained counselors along with community awareness programs to help identify risk factors such as substance abuse and exposure to violence and other suicides.
President Obama issued an executive order in January 2016 that reinforced reporting between mental health services and the background check database. While restricting dangerous weapons from those who are seriously ill is not a contentious issue, Obama’s decision to allocate $500 million in mental health funds highlights the way we should be treating the intersection of guns and mental health in America today.
A closer examination of suicide rates by county in the United States reveals similar contradictions between strict gun laws and high suicide rates. California, for example, features some of the strictest gun laws in the country, mandating written exams before purchasing a handgun and 10-day waiting periods.
Yet counties in northern and central California have high suicide rates despite their gun regulations. Trinity and Alpine counties in California grapple with suicide rates more than double and almost triple the national average, respectively, and Siskiyou, Lake and Mariposa counties are all 67 percent higher than the country’s norm.
And the data from 247 counties — five counties with the highest suicide rates from each state — their average is nearly twice the national suicide rate. These counties from around the country display striking correlations between high suicide rates and struggling economies, limited physical and mental health care and poor access to higher education. Poverty levels were 27 percent higher than the national average and individuals in these counties earned 17 percent less overall.
While it’s easy to consider gun control and suicides only by the numbers, these examples demonstrate the nuance of such a complicated issue. Guns are used in suicides often but they’re not the root cause. Economic background, education and access to proper physical and mental health care are more important, underlying issues that cause high suicide rates.
High disability rates, a useful indicator for poor access to health care, was also prevalent. These counties displayed disability rates 41 percent higher than the national average and their residents were 36 percent more likely to be uninsured. Attainment of higher education is likewise a strong predictor for better job placement, earnings and quality of life, but 90 percent of these counties lagged behind the national average.
Some of the counties analyzed had suicide rates below the national average, illustrating the flip-side of these trends. The counties with lower rates of suicide were predictably better off economically, had higher levels of education and enjoyed significantly greater health care access and insurance coverage — facts that highlight the root causes underlying suicide that exist outside of guns.
Tackling the underlying factors that cause someone to attempt suicide, such as lower economic status, less education and mental health diagnoses, is a more effective way to reduce suicide rates permanently than attempting to bandage the flow by restricting access to guns.
Suicides are a problem — and an important one, no doubt — but gun control is not the answer.
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If you or a friend are struggling with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts or any form of mental illness:
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