Guns, Violence, and Suicide
Today’s culture has embraced an erroneous connection between mental illness and violence, partly due to exaggeration by the media, especially in light of the many mass killings in the past several years. The Sept. 1 post on Beacons Lens that appeared after the on-air shooting in Virginia addressed this very point, stating, “[t]he proliferation of today’s media makes it too easy to draw conclusions that aren’t necessarily based in the evidence, often blurring the line between fact and fiction, a view supported by research.”
There is, however, an important caveat to this mix of stereotypes and prejudices: the problem of suicide.
The 20th century French writer and philosopher, Albert Camus, asserted that suicide is the one truly serious philosophical problem. Couple that thinking with the reality that suicide is a major mental health challenge, and we need to remind ourselves that those with mental disorders do present danger to one group of people: themselves. What does the evidence say?
A 2000 paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association compared homicide and suicide rates before and after the implementation of the federal Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which established waiting periods and background checks before an individual can buy a gun. While these measures had no effect on the homicide rate, there was a significant decrease in firearm suicide among those aged 55 years or older – particularly in states instituting both waiting periods and background checks.
In 2003, a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine compared incidence rates of suicide across three groups of US states – those with restrictive, modest, and unrestricted firearm laws. After controlling for race/ethnicity, income and urbanization, the suicide rate was significantly higher in states with modest and unrestricted gun laws compared to those with restrictive laws. This finding applied to both men and women.
More recently, a 2015 American Journal of Public Health article studied the impact of four different types of gun laws. The article concluded that states implementing such laws saw a decrease in their suicide rates, while the one state that repealed one such law saw an increase in its suicide rate.
After controlling for race/ethnicity, income and urbanization, the suicide rate was significantly higher in states with modest and unrestricted gun laws compared to those with restrictive laws. This finding applied to both men and women.
This trend is seen outside of the United States as well. The American Journal of Psychiatry reported on a 2013 study in Switzerland, which concluded that the “restriction of firearm availability in Switzerland resulting from the Army XXI reform was followed by an enduring decrease in the general suicide rate.”
The evidence, therefore, shows that there is indeed a connection between gun violence and mental illness, but it’s not the connection that society assumes. Reminding the nation that suicide is among the top 10 causes of death in the population – and second in the 25–34 age group – and its link to guns availability is a mental health, as well as a public health, imperative. Therefore, it is the mental health community’s ongoing responsibility to reinforce the accurate relationship between gun violence and mental illness through grassroots education efforts, advocacy campaigns and gun control debates.
In brief, it’s not that those people with guns have more mental illness or that those with mental illness commit more violence. However, those with mental illness AND guns are more likely to make an attempt against their most likely target: themselves.