Published July 14, 2008
The Supreme Court may have confirmed that Americans have the right to own guns for protection, but the gun debate is hardly over.
The District of Columbia, whose handgun ban was struck down by the Supreme Court, is still planning on banning most handguns.
And the court decision has spurred the media into overdrive to paint guns as dangerous to their owners.
No one who has taken even a quick glance at the crime data can seriously argue that the D.C. gun ban lowered murder or violent crime rates.
The concerns being raised are not the threat from criminals, but that guns pose a risk to their owners.
In particular, buying a gun and having it in your home is said to increase the likelihood of suicide.
Mike Stobbe for the Associated Press emphasized the problem by pointing out that the majority of gun deaths are suicides.
He also noticed that Supreme Court Justice Breyer mentioned his concerns about gun suicides 14 times in his dissent.
By contrast, he mentioned accidental gun deaths rated only three times.
That is not surprising, given that the accidental death rate from guns is so low not only absolutely but in comparison to other common household items.
A nationally syndicated article by Shankar Vedantam, a Washington Post columnist, has a similar concern.
Vedantam points to a 1991 study in the New England Journal of Medicine that claims that after examining data from 1968 to 1987, “the gun ban correlated with an abrupt 25 percent decline in suicides in the city” and that the “decline was entirely driven by a decline in firearm-related suicide.”
Yes, suicides did indeed decline after the ban.
However, it is unlikely to have much to do with banning guns as non-gun suicides fell even slightly faster than gun suicides (see the graph) (pdf).
If the gun ban caused the drop in suicides, why would the non-gun suicide rate fall at least as much as the gun suicide rate?
A far more likely explanation is that something else was changing and causing people to not want to commit suicide, no matter what method they might consider.
Click here for graph (pdf).
Yet, the D.C. experience isn’t unique.
The National Academy of Sciences released a 2004 report that comprehensively reviewed academic research studying guns and suicide.
The panel set up under the Clinton administration surveyed the extensive literature from public health, economics and criminology. The Academy concluded 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 association between gun ownership and gun suicide was “modest” and not particularly consistent.
In addition, the panel pointed out that even the studies that claim more guns increase gun suicides are “unclear” on why the relationship exists.
Yet, more importantly, the presence of guns had no impact on total suicides.
That finding is true not only for the United States, but also across countries.
This isn’t particularly surprising.
There are so many different ways for people to kill themselves: people can jump off buildings or crash their car into a telephone pole or head-on into another car.
In a high suicide rate country such as Japan, many people jump in front of subway trains.
Guns are one of the most lethal and effective methods of committing suicide, but how lethal the different methods are has a lot to do with whether someone wants to successfully commit suicide.
For example, the vast majority of attempted suicides by women are apparently not meant to be successful (just calls for help). They usually choose methods, such as taking only a relatively few sleeping pills, that are destined to fail.
But that hardly means that if you take someone who was intent on killing themselves and have them use sleeping pills, that they will also fail.
There is a great irony about this whole debate.
Yet, those same liberals opposed restrictions on drugs used in physician-assisted suicides.
The court forbade the U.S. Attorney General from claiming that suicide is not a “legitimate medical purpose.”
How is it OK for the justices to prevent regulations of drugs that are used to commit suicides, but support the banning of guns used for the same purpose?
If anything, the court can probably more effectively end physician-assisted suicides by banning drugs than they could end suicides by banning guns. Could the answer simply be that liberals dislike guns, not drugs?
More conservative justices, who believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual's right to own guns, don’t face the same logical conflict.
Even if they would like to regulate suicide with guns and even if they believed that gun ownership affected the total level of suicides, the Second Amendment protects the individual’s right to own guns.
There is no similar protection for drugs.
The debate about protecting people from themselves is a familiar one.
But even if those seeking to ban guns are right that more guns mean more suicides, who is best positioned to weigh the risks and benefits from letting people protect themselves?
If people are unable to make these decisions for themselves, how can people figure out which politicians should make these decisions for them?
Please let me know what you think of the piece here.