Facts About Firearm Policy Initiative

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MYTH: The National Research Council found no evidence that firearm availability is a risk factor for suicide


  • Researcher John Lott claims that a 2004 National Research Council (NRC) report written by 11 national experts concluded firearm regulations do not reduce gun suicides because suicidal individuals will substitute another means of suicide such as suffocation or poisoning.
  • The National Research Council is the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.
  • The NRC’s summary of the research about firearms and suicide is the opposite of Lott’s claim that owning a firearm is not a risk factor for suicide. 

Lott’s Claim:

In his 2016 book War on Guns, Lott focuses on the relationship between gun laws and suicide. He wrote that reporters too frequently write about the relationship between restricting gun ownership and suicide while ignoring “the National Research Council’s research showing that suicidal individuals had merely ‘substituted other methods of suicide.’” 

In the same book, Lott writes, “A 2004 National Research Council report found that ‘Some gun control policies may reduce the number of gun suicides, but they have not yet been shown to reduce the overall risk of suicide in any population.’” 

The Facts:

To make the false claim that reporters ignore the NRC purported conclusions regarding the substitution of suicide methods, Lott takes part of an NRC quote, “substituted other methods of suicide,” from the report out of context. The full NRC sentence reads: “The most important limitation is that these [two] studies do not indicate whether handgun purchasers would have substituted other methods of suicide if a gun were not available, and do not measure other factors, such as history of substance abuse, psychiatric illness, criminal activity, or domestic violence, which might explain or modify a link between gun ownership and propensity for suicide.”

The NRC quote does not refer to the dozens of studies examined by the NRC on the topic of suicide and firearms, but merely summarized the limitations of two studies that examined the connection between recent gun purchases and suicide. 

The NRC’s summary of the research about firearms and suicide is succinctly stated in this quote from the report:  “Overall, the U.S. studies have consistently found that household gun ownership is associated with a higher overall risk of suicide.”

A 2014 meta-analysis by Andrew Anglemyer and two colleagues examined 16 studies on suicide. Anglemyer, et al., found that gun availability tripled the overall risk of suicide. Contrary to Lott’s claims about a suicidal person substituting another method if access to firearms are restricted, the meta-analysis found the overall risk of suicide tripled when a gun was available. 

GVPedia identified 24 case-control studies conducted in the United States, all of which conclude that the presence of a firearm in the home is a strong risk factor for suicide. Those cases are as follows:

  1. A 1988 study by David Brent et al., identified availability of firearms in the homes as a risk factor for suicide. 
  2. A 1991 study by David Brent et al., concluded that “The availability of guns in the home, independent of firearms type or method of storage, appears to increase the risk for suicide among adolescents.”
  3. According to a 1992 study by Arthur Kellerman et al., “Ready availability of firearms is associated with an increased risk of suicide in the home.” 
  4. According to a 1993 study by David Brent et al., “prevention of suicide in this group [adolescents with no apparent psychiatric disorder] is probably best achieved by restriction of the availability of firearms, particularly loaded ones.”
  5. A 1993 study by David Brent et al., concluded that “When pediatricians are faced with a suicidal adolescent, they should insist on the removal of firearms from the home. Pediatricians should also inform parents that the presence of firearms may be associated with adolescent suicide even in the absence of clear psychiatric illness.”
  6. A 1994 study by David Brent et al, found that “suicide vicitms were more likely to have… a handgun available in the home.”
  7. A 1997 study by James Bailey et al., found that “Instead of conferring protection, keeping a gun in the home is associated with increased risk of both suicide and homicide of women.”
  8. According to a 1997 study by Peter Cummings et al., “within the first year after purchase, the relative risk of suicide was more than fivefold higher among those with a family history of handgun purchase.”
  9. A 1999 study by David Brent et al., found that the “availability of a gun, and past suicide attempt conveyed significant risk for suicide across all 4 demographic groups.”
  10. According to a 1999 study by Garen Wintemute et al., “The purchase of a handgun is associated with a substantial increase in the risk of suicide by firearm and by any method. The increase in the risk of suicide by firearm is apparent within a week after the purchase of a handgun and persists for at least six years.”
  11. A 2000 study by Seema Shah et al. concluded that “Two types of public health interventions to prevent adolescent firearm suicides are likely to be successful: (a) limiting household access to firearms, and (b) identifying adolescents at high risk of firearm suicide.”
  12. A 2002 study by Yeates Conwell et al., found that the “presence of a firearm in the home was associated with increased risk for suicide, even after controlling for psychiatric illness.”
  13. According to a 2003 study by Hsiang-Ching Kung et al., “access to a firearm increased the odds of suicide for both genders.”
  14. A 2003 study by Douglas Wiebe concluded that “Having a gun at home is a risk factor for adults to be shot fatally (gun homicide) or commit suicide with a firearm. Physicians should continue to discuss with patients the implications of keeping guns at home.”
  15. A 2004 study by Linda Dahlberg et al., concluded that “regardless of storage practice, type of gun, or number of firearms in the home, having a gun in the home was associated with an increased risk of firearm homicide and firearm suicide in the home.”
  16. According to a 2004 study by Edmond Shenassa et al., “we found that household access to firearms is associated with an increased risk of suicide by firearm… Even among those who are highly motivated to die, lack of access to firearms can lower suicide mortality. Even if all of those who committed suicide by firearm simply switched to the next most lethal method, still a significant reduction in suicide mortality would occur.”
  17. A 2005 study by Hsiang-Ching Kung et al., found that suicide deaths among white and African American decedents were associated with firearm availability.
  18. According to a 2005 study by David Grossman, “The presence of a household firearm is associated with an increased risk of suicide among adults and adolescents. In a study of suicide attempters and completers, investigators found that 75% of the guns were stored in the residence of the victim, friend, or relative.”
  19. A 2008 study by Susan Sorenson and Katherine Vittes found that “suicide risk remains higher among gun owners and among those who live in a home with a gun… Our findings provide support for the idea that reducing access to firearms may be an effective way to decrease suicide.”
  20. According to a 2008 study by Mark Ilgen et al., “individuals with mental disorders were no more or less likely to have access to guns than others suggests that the previously established link between guns and suicide is unlikely to be solely explained by higher levels of gun access among at-risk individuals. Instead, at-risk individuals may simply be more likely to use the guns that they possess to harm themselves.”
  21. A 2009 study by Matthew Miller et al., found that “the empirical association between household firearm ownership and heightened risk of suicide, consistently reported in previous case–control and ecological studies is not explained by an inherently higher risk of psychopathology or substance abuse or dependence among gun-owning families.”
  22. A 2011 study by Joseph Logan et al., found that “Suicide is a complex phenomenon often resulting from multiple risk factors… [T]he most common mechanism or weapon used was a firearm.”
  23. According to a 2011 study by Marian Betz et al., “Our results underscore the importance of reducing a suicidal person’s access to firearms. For example, parents and spouses of people at high risk for suicide should be urged to temporarily store household firearms somewhere other than at home or to lock them securely out of the suicidal person’s reach until the situation improves.”
  24. A 2012 study by Katherine Hempstead et al., found that “firearms are disproportionately used in male suicides when physical health is listed as a circumstance… These findings have implications for prevention efforts, because restricting access to lethal means is an important aspect of suicide prevention.”

Regarding Lott’s claim about the impact of firearm laws on overall suicide rates, it is true that at the time of the 2004 NRC’s report the evidence was spotty. Since 2004, more research has been conducted on this topic. The evidence shows that policies such as Permit to Purchase laws and waiting periods do reduce suicide rates. Extreme Risk Protection Orders show promising signs of reducing suicides. And international evidence from Australia’s sweeping firearm buyback program in 1996 reduced firearm suicide rates and found no evidence of substitution.

Lott’s counter

In an August 30, 2016 response to a Vox article published the same day, Lott accuses the authors of omitting the following sentence in the NRC report: “It is not yet clear if the individuals who used a gun to commit suicide would have committed suicide by another method if a gun had not been available.” Lott also quotes from the executive summary of the NRC report which stated no conclusion had been reached about the link between firerms and suicide.  

In his response to the Vox article, Lott writes that a survey of “economists and criminologists who have done empirical research on firearms. This survey shows a 60%-to-40% margin believing that the presence of a gun in the home does not cause an increase in the risk of suicide. Economists overwhelmingly took this position, while criminologists agreed with it by a margin of only two-percentage points.”


Lott fails to mention that he co-authored the survey he cites. The results of his survey are not consistent with other surveys of experts. A May 2014 Harvard Injury Control Research Center survey about firearms and suicide was completed by 150 firearms researchers, and found that 84% of respondents agreed that having a gun in the home increases the risk of suicide.


John Lott, War on Drugs, 2016
John Lott, “Shooting Blanks,” New York Post, December 29, 2004
Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review, National Research Council, 2005
Andrew Anglemyer and Tara Horvath, “The Accessibility of Firearms and Risk for Suicide and Homicide Victimization Among Household Members,” Annals of Internal Medicine, January 21, 2014
Evan DeFilippis and Devin Hughes, “John Lott and the War on Truth: A Response to Lott’s 
Continued Lies,” Armed With Reason, December 1, 2015
John Lott, “Response to Evan DeFilippis and Devin Hughes’ claims at ‘ArmedwithReason’ (sic)  about my research,” John Lott blog, June 23, 2015
GVPedia, “Gun Laws and Suicide,” October 28, 2017
GVPedia, “The Denver Accord, Parts 1 & 2: Licensing and Registration Laws,” 2019
GVPedia, “The Denver Accord, Part 3: Extreme Risk Protection Order,” 2019
Chapman S, Alpers P, Agho K, et al., “Australia’s 1996 gun law reforms: faster falls in firearm deaths, firearm suicides, and a decade without mass shootings,” Injury Prevention 2006;12:365-372.
Evan DeFilippis and Devin Hughes, “The bogus claims of the NRA’s favorite social scientist, debunked,” Vox, August 30, 2016
John Lott, “Response To DeFilippis And Hughes Review Of The War On Guns,” Crime Prevention Research Center, August 30, 2016
“Results Survey #1,” Harvard Injury Control Research Center, May 2014

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