In the late 1950s in England and Wales, people began switching from heating their stoves with a gas containing carbon monoxide to one that didn’t. Over the next two decades, the suicide rate dropped, a decline attributed to the decline in death by carbon monoxide poisoning. Forty years later, the Sri Lankan government began to restrict the use of extremely toxic pesticides that had been commonly ingested to commit suicide. The suicide rate in that country dropped by half. In the United States, gun ownership dropped over a 22-year period ending in 2002, and the rate of suicides using guns declined, too.
When people talk about preventing suicide, the conversation usually centers on detecting and treating suicidal behavior, but a growing body of evidence points to a far simpler and more effective way to save thousands of lives: simply remove the means by which people commit suicide. In the United States, where half of all suicides are committed with a gun, that means firearms.
But despite dovetailing streams of evidence from history and public health research that removing guns from the houses of people at risk of suicide could save thousands of lives, some are not persuaded. Skeptics argue that perhaps gun owners, and the people who live with them, are just more suicidal than the regular population.
A new study published by Dr. Matthew Miller, associate professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health, offers powerful evidence to the contrary, showing that while rates of suicide attempts are virtually identical in states with high and low gun ownership, the number of gun deaths from suicide are four times higher in states with high gun ownership, where about half the people live in homes with guns.
“If you look back to cigarette smoking and lung cancer and the history of the resistance that was put up and the uncertainty that was manufactured by the cigarette industry, it is almost like a blueprint for many of the arguments that progun forces have made in the US,” Miller said. “But the evidence has really gotten over the last 10 years or so to be overwhelming.”
Far from advocating for the abolition of gun ownership or even greater gun control laws, researchers such as Miller argue that lives could be saved by removing guns from the home when a family member is depressed or angry or at risk of self-harm. That’s because suicide attempts with other means are often unsuccessful.
In the new study, published in August in the American Journal of Epidemiology, he and colleagues point out a striking statistic. In 2010, 22,000 people attempted suicide with a gun, and all but 2,000 were successful. If 1 out of every 10 of those people used something other than a gun, about 1,900 additional people would have lived.
“This is not about legislating our way out of it,” Miller said. “If I have a kid who is moody and having problems or a husband or wife who just lost a job and is being issued divorce papers, or just going through a rough time, the best thing I can do to reduce that person’s immediate risk of death from suicide” is to take guns out of the house.