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More Evidence that Guns Don't Cause Suicide

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Tags U.S. History

07/03/2018

When suicide rates are in the news, some observers who are already in favor of gun control will attempt to blame suicides on the mere presence of guns . The claim is that guns are easy to use for suicide, so this leads to more successful attempts.

This theory, however, relies primarily on conjecture and supposed correlations since, of course, it's impossible to know if a person who commits suicide would have been unsuccessful had he or she — usually he — employed another method.

To back this up, some gun control advocates will then claim that — because of the guns — suicide rates are higher in states with more gun ownership. This data, however, relies on survey data, and there is no documentation on gun ownership, as purchases data is not connected to specific buyers. This widely-cited study , for example, relies on asking strangers if they own guns. The problem is, there is reason to believe that people don't answer such questions truthfully — especially in states with more restrictive gun laws.

The Violence Policy Center, for example, also claims that states with more restrictive gun laws have less suicide because of those laws. The problem here is that "restrictive" gun laws are usually just laws that restrict magazine capacity, and certain types of guns. But, obviously, one does not need a high-capacity magazine or a so-called "assault rifle" to commit suicide. The most basic revolver or single-round firearm will do.

Nevertheless, many pundits are more than happy to draw the connection. They'll point to maps like this one from Mother Jones:

gun-ownership-map-updated.png

And then point to this one from the CDC:

suicidecddc.jpg

"See?" They'll say, "all those gun owners in the Rocky Mountain states are committing more suicide, because they have more guns!"

Never mind, of course, that Texas has a suicide rate that it not notable, and yet that state tends to be the poster child for widespread gun ownership.

There is no denying, however, that the suicide map does draw one's attention to the Rocky Mountain West where some have even named "the suicide belt."

Why so much suicide there?

Well, as the Salt Lake City Tribune reported yesterday, “Growing evidence, based on large data sets, suggests that altitude of residence is specifically associated with increased risk of suicide and depression."

Nor is this idea based on mere correlations or conjecture. At least this time, unlike the gun-control advocates, they have some sort of theory:

Low atmospheric pressure at altitude causes declining blood oxygen levels. This affects the body’s levels of serotonin, the chemical that helps regulate mood, the U. researchers wrote, adding that lower oxygen also impairs energy flows through our brains.

“People with depression tend to have less efficient energy utilization in certain parts of their brain, like the prefrontal cortex,” said Brent Kious, a U. psychiatry professor and the review’s lead author. This energy roadblock, he said, means people have a tougher time overcoming negative emotions.

If this is true, then we could see that it's certainly not a coincidence that seven of the top-ten states for average altitude — i.e., Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Idaho, and Montana — also all happen to be in the top ten for suicide rates in the US.

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There are other reasons to doubt the suicide-gun narrative as well (see here and here), although the presence of altitude as a factor doesn't necessarily mean no other factors are important. Gun control advocates, of course, will likely continue to point to guns as a "cause" of suicide, based on a variation of the refrain "if it saves one life!" That's however, is a terrible reason to support new law. After all, every law comes with downsides, especially in places with many communities far from police services, as is the case of much of the Rocky Mountain region. When the sheriff is 30 minutes away, telling people to "just dial 911" in case of a criminal threat isn't serious advice. Moreover, gun laws against AR-15's, for instance, have nothing to do with the sorts of firearms that enable people contemplating suicide. Only a total ban on firearms would (in theory) do this. But, maybe the fact that gun-control-as-suicide-prevention is something repeatedly suggested by gun-control advocates is a matter of them expressing their preferences for what they really want. 

Also baffling if the fact that many gun control advocates — who tend to come from the Left — also advocate for more suicide — albeit via state-approved euthanasia and so-called "doctor-assisted" suicide. Although such advocates claim to be deeply concerned about suicide, they nevertheless seek laws to make suicide easier. Their only problem appears to be with the method. And it shouldn't be surprising that the only method they seem especially concerned about involves guns. 

But a more realistic approach to the problem comes from the researcher who worked on the altitude findings. He concluded "it’s difficult to envision how the altitude findings could affect his research into individual suicide cases or how it might guide public policy on suicide prevention." "Difficult," indeed. In fact, it may be that there is no political solution to the problem. But that's something politicians never want to hear. 

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is the editor of Mises Wire and The Austrian. Send him your article submissions, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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