Facts About Firearm Policy Initiative

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MYTH: Gun suicide is not more lethal than other means
Summary:

  • Researcher John Lott disputes the claim that easy access to guns contributes to suicide deaths because firearms are more lethal than other means.
  • Lott cites a 1995 study to support his claim.
  • Attempted suicides by firearms have an 82.5% fatality rate, versus a fatality rate of 4% for all suicide attempts. Firearms are the most lethal significant means of suicide.
  • Suicide is impulsive and people typically use a mean that is readily at hand.

Lott’s Claim:

A 2019 Vox article stated, ”Guns allow people to kill themselves much more easily. Perhaps the reason access to guns so strongly contributes to suicides is that guns are much deadlier than alternatives like cutting and poison.”

In Lott’s 2020 book, Gun Control Myths, he responds, writing: “Vox gives a very misleading impression of the effectiveness of different suicide methods.” Lott cites a 1995 study of Los Angeles County suicides that found that being hit by a train and a gunshot to the head are similarly lethal, and suicide by train is half as painful as a self-inflicted gunshot. “The second problem with these numbers is that not everyone who attempts suicide wants to do so successfully,” Lott continues. “So people’s reticence can affect the success rate of the method. They may take a few extra pills, but not enough to actually kill themselves.”

The Facts:

Lott brings up the relatively rare method of suicide by train. According to the US Department of Transportation, there were 219 rail suicide fatalities in 2017, compared to an estimated 22,000 firearm suicides. 

Suicide is impulsive and people typically use a means that is readily at hand. According to Pew Research Center, guns are present in 42% of U.S. households; therefore firearms are readily accessible to many. Suicide by train and self-inflicted gunshot wounds are similarly lethal but guns are more accessible.

A 2001 study found that 24% of individuals who attempted suicide took less than five minutes between the moment of decision and the suicide attempt and 70% of people took less than an hour. A 2009 study found that 48% of patients reported that they attempted suicide within ten minutes of the first current thought of suicide. Firearms are particularly unforgiving and rarely  afford a second chance.

Firearms are the most lethal significant means of suicide with an 82.5% fatality rate, versus a fatality rate of 4% for all suicide attempts. Even assuming a 100% substitution rate for suicide attempts, meaning the person attempting suicide uses a method other than firearms, the completed suicide rate would still decrease because firearms are more lethal. Contrary to Lott’s claim, lethality as well as availability matter. 

Sources:

John Lott, Gun Control Myths, 2020
German Lopez, “America’s unique gun violence problem, explained in 16 maps and charts,” Vox, Aug. 31, 2019
Clinton Rhyne, Donald Templer, Lillian Brown, and Noel Peters, “Dimensions of Suicide: Perceptions of Lethality, Time, and Agony,” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, Fall 1995 
“Rail Suicide Prevention Resource Page,” US Department of Transportation Volpe Center, October 14, 2020 
Thomas Simon, “Characteristics of impulsive suicide attempts and attempters,” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 2001 
“Fact Sheet: Gun Ownership and Suicide,” GVPedia.org, October 28, 2017
“Duration of Suicidal Crises,” Means Matter at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, (accessed Dec. January 22, 2020)
Eberhard Deisenhammer et al., “The duration of the suicidal process: how much time is left for intervention between consideration and accomplishment of a suicide attempt?,” Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, January 2009

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