Facts About Firearm Policy Initiative

Return to Database
MYTH: Gun ownership does not increase the risk of suicide
Summary:

  • Studies show that gun owners have a greater frequency of suicide death than non-gun owners and that strong gun laws are correlated to lower rates of suicide.
  • Researcher John Lott claims that public health research fails to include gender imbalance (more males living in an area than females) as a risk factor to explain why gun owners have greater frequency of suicide deaths than non-gun owners. 
  • Lott’s purported evidence is a 2001 study by Cutler, et al., which he claims shows that the disproportionate number of older, single men in rural areas is the primary cause for a higher suicide rate, not firearms or firearm laws.
  • Lott misrepresents the Cutler study, which focused on youth suicide rates and makes no claims regarding a gender imbalance driving suicide rates among older men. 
  • A 2016 Harvard study concluded that if a confounder (other plausible factor) was missed regarding suicide rates as Lott suggests, the confounding factor would need to be responsible for increasing the risk of suicide by at least tenfold. 

Lott’s Claim:

In a March 2018 post on his website, Lott criticizes a Boston University School of Public Health report that concludes that states with stronger gun laws have fewer firearm deaths. Lott claims that gun control laws do not reduce gun deaths but “stricter gun control laws happen to be associated with other factors.” Lott describes a paper by Cutler, Glaeser, and Norberg that he says “found that rural areas have both more gun ownership and a gender imbalance that leads to high numbers of older, single men. This, the authors argue, explains the greater frequency of suicide in rural areas, which also have higher gun ownership rates.”

The Facts:

The study by Cutler et al. cited by Lott does not state that suicide rates are higher in rural areas because of a gender imbalance. In fact, the study is titled “Explaining the Rise in Youth Suicide” and does not explore the suicide rates of “older, single men” as Lott contends. Lott misrepresents the study’s findings to support his false claim that stronger gun control laws do not reduce gun deaths. 

Research has consistently shown that gun ownership is a strong risk factor for suicide, typically showing a two to ten times increased risk of suicide for gun owners relative to non-gun owners. This finding holds true even after controlling for various characteristics that might be different between gun owners and non-gun owners such as demographic and psychopathological variables, suicidal ideation, and past attempts. Moreover, the increased risk of suicide to gun owners is not contained to the gun owner, but is shared by the spouse and children. 

A 2016 Harvard study by Matthew Miller et al., concludes no other plausible factor (confounder) can explain the significant difference in suicide rates between gun owners and non-gun owners. The authors used a systematic review of the firearm-suicide literature and bias analysis to determine if “existing studies may have failed to account for the possibility that members of households with firearms differ from members of households without firearms in important ways related to suicide risk.” The study concluded that if  a confounder was missed as Lott suggests, it would have to be an order of magnitude higher than any known risk factor. Since “no such confounder has been found or even suggested,” the study concludes that “unmeasured confounding alone is unlikely to explain the association between firearms and suicide.”

Sources:

John Lott, “Do States With Stricter Gun Control Laws Have Fewer Gun Deaths? No. Do They Have Fewer Homicides And Suicides? Definitely Not,” Crime Prevention Research Center, March 27, 2018 
David Cutler, Edward Glaeser, and Karen Norberg, “Explaining the Rise in Youth Suicide,” Harvard Institute of Economic Research, March 2001
“Fact Sheet: Gun Ownership and Suicide,” GVPedia.org, Oct. 28, 2017
“Means Matter,” Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, (accessed January 21, 2021)
Molly Pahn, “The Changing Landscape of U.S. Gun Policy: State Firearm Laws, 1991–2016,” State Firearm Laws, Dec. 2017
Matthew Miller, Sonja Swanson, and Deborah Azrael, “Are We Missing Something Pertinent? A Bias Analysis of Unmeasured Confounding in the Firearm-Suicide Literature,” Epidemiologic Reviews, January 2016
Matthew Miller and David Hemenway, “Guns and Suicide in the United States,” The New England Journal of Medicine, Sept. 4, 2008

Share