14 May 2007

People Don't Kill, Guns Do?

Last month's issue of the Journal of Trauma (abstract) published a study which correlated suicide rates with gun ownership levels. The authors surveyed all 50 states on a state-by-state basis. They looked at suicide rates and gun ownership levels for each state. The final conclusion was that "[h]ousehold firearm ownership levels are strongly associated with higher rates of suicide, consistent with the hypothesis that the availability of lethal means increases the rate of completed suicide."


They controlled for measures of poverty, urbanization, unemployment, drug and alcohol dependence and abuse, and mental illness... In the 15 states with the highest levels of household gun ownership, twice as many people committed suicide compared with the six states with the lowest levels, even though the population in both groups was about the same.

On one hand, the results are not that surprising. A deeply troubled person with a gun can result in trouble. No epiphany there. But on the other hand, this study suggests that it's the gun, not the "trouble" that is the key factor. That is surprising.

My perspective has always been that once a person commits to suicide, it doesn't matter whether there's a gun or not; he/she will find a way. With a gun, it may be sooner rather than later, but the key factor is the presence of psychopathology, not the availability of firearms. But this study doesn't support that perspective. If it did, the suicide rates would be independent of gun ownership levels.

What interested me about this study is what it may mean for homicides. Like my perspective on suicide, I had thought that gun violence is more the result of psychopathology and cognitive dysfunction (for example, the inability to make moral judgments that most of us take for granted) than availability of guns. For this reason, I was skeptical of extreme gun control measures (i.e. bans) because removing guns doesn't remove the underlying psychopathology. A psychopath who is denied easy guns will eventually find another method of destruction, one that could very possibly be worse. The recent VaTech shootings are as good an example of that as any. Mr. Cho used guns, but if he didn't have the easy access that Virginia prides itself on ensuring, I think it's fairly clear that he would have utilized other means, possibly borrowing a page from Timothy McVeigh.

So maybe I should rethink my perspective. If the availability of guns trumps the presence of psychopathology in suicide victims then maybe it does so for homicide perpetrators as well. And that means that gun control would actually be practical.


Jill said...

Westender - I don't recall, do you have a background at all in mental health clinical stuff? I don't want to come off speaking down or anything is why I ask.

Based on my education and experience, it's very important to understand that wanting to commit suicide and then planning to do it involve very different emotional states. If a person gets to the planning stage, the method they think they would use also reflects their emotional attachment to the idea of no longer being alive.

I guess what I want to contribute to your very good post (because it makes us think about things that make people very uncomfortable) is that the connection between suicide and gun use is as individual as choosing the person you want to marry: there are many factors going into the decision and I would guess that while there may be a correlation between guns and suicide, there's not a causal relationship in the way your might think.

Sorry if that doesn't make sense - I'm still coming out of an exhaustion fog from a weekend of family celebrations. But I did really like seeing this post of yours. It's a very complicated topic.

Mark said...

As a matter of semantics, I disagree with your last statement in that I don't think gun control would be practical, just beneficial.

I'm sure it would save lives but I don't think it's a practical solution in the U.S. Too many lobbyists and fringe groups would make this a mess.

Taking guns from nutcases would be tougher than winning in Iraq. Too a lot of the far right, Jesus runs a distant second to handguns.

WestEnder said...

Interesting comments.

To answer Jill's question about my background, one of my research stints was in neuroscience but I don't have any background in the clinical aspect.

As far as a causal relationship, that's not what the study concludes and therefore it's not what I conclude, either. But this study does establish that guns and suicide are "strongly associated".

An analogy might be something like fast cars; they don't cause accidents, but a strong association would be no surprise. So, just as fast cars make it more likely that an accident will occur, so too does the presence of a gun make it more likely that a suicide will succeed.

And that's why I'm wondering if the same holds true for homicides.

andy said...

About 20 years ago Time did a cover story profiling every person killed by a handgun in one week in the United States. They gave a name, location, picture (if they had one) and a short blurb about what happened. There were over 400 profiles. At least 75% of the homicides were crimes of passion -- spouse catches the husband or wife in bed with another person, argument gets out of control, that sort of thing. If you have a gun, all you have to do is push a button and someone dies. Seems like if you experience that rush of rage and despair and instead of a gun, you have a knife, a rope or a board with a nail sticking out it, it's a whole lot less likely that someone's going to end up dead.