A study just published in the Journal of Trauma found that across 50 US States, home gun ownership was linked to an increase in the risk of gun-related suicide.
The man-in-the-street wisdom on suicide goes something like this: ‘If someone wants to kill themselves, they’ll always find a way to do it’.
In actual fact, we now know that availability of an easy method of suicide makes it more likely.
Many drugs are no longer provided in pill bottles, but instead, in blister packs and this is linked to a reduced severity of overdose.
You would think that if someone wanted to die by overdose, pushing pills out a blister pack would be no less of an obstacle than emptying them out of a bottle, but simple measures such as this can be an effective form of self-harm prevention.
Why is this? Well, it’s not really clear, but possibly because every action someone takes on the path to suicide has to be contemplated and thought about.
Perhaps each contemplation makes people reflect and less likely to act impulsively. Certainly, in some people (but not all it seems) impulsivity is linked to a history of suicide attempts.
Pushing 100 pills out of a blister pack is 99 more actions than emptying a bottle of pills, so maybe this gives more time for people to halt any impulsive actions.
Guns are an instant way of killing yourself and this is one explanation of why they might be linked to a higher rate of suicide.
One objection to the gun-suicide association might be that this is just a correlation and suicidal people might be more likely to have guns in their house because they have acquired a method to kill themselves, or otherwise lead lifestyles that would make both owning a gun and killing themselves more likely.
The finding in the Journal of Trauma study is indeed a correlation, but an experimental approach that would find a true causal link – e.g. putting guns in randomly selected households and seeing if more people kill themselves in these homes – would be highly unethical.
However, the study controlled for a number of factors that are typically given as reasons other than just gun ownership for the link, such as poverty, urbanisation, unemployment, mental illness, and drug and alcohol dependence and abuse.
Still the link remained, and remained only for death by firearm, not suicide by any other method.