Does access to firearms increase our suicide numbers?

I attended a recent firearms seminar where one speaker addressed the role of firearms in the nation’s dreadful suicide problem. The essential gist of his presentation was that the more people who have access to firearms – the more suicides that the nation can expect.

These firearms just made it all too easy to act on impulse. What concerned me was the lack of ANY supporting data to prove this claim. The attendees were told that the theory was based on some ‘anecdotal’ evidence. So feedback from the suicide victims after the event.

I first suspected the use of mediums and spirit boards. It was later clarified that the sum total of ‘proof’ in support of the speaker’s theory was – at best – a few discussions with troubled persons who had in fact just considered using a firearm to harm themselves.

As a researcher, it did shock me that no effort of any kind had been made to gather the readily available numbers here. Not by those claiming to be experts in the field. Those who were now literally lecturing to others wanting to tackle the issue of suicide and get our numbers down.  

So I did the obvious and sent two official information act requests away. The first was to the NZ Police – who are responsible for management of the Arms Act. The second was to the Ministry of Health – who collate suicide data.

The responses allowed me to compare the number of firearms owned per region to the number of suicides by firearm for those same regions. Then to look for a pattern.

Here is the method for those who would care to repeat it:

The Police have twelve Policing regions. It is possible to determine the exact number of shooters within a region as their homes must be registered by law.

The district health boards, which record the suicides in their area of responsibility, number twenty.

So it is a simple matter to put those DHB districts into the Police regions and then produce the following table:

You will immediately notice that there is NO correlation between the ownership of firearms and the likelihood of suicide. At all.

Districts with more firearm owners routinely have fewer suicides. Some districts with half the firearm numbers of other areas can have twice the firearm suicides – or more. A district with the same number of firearms as another can have six times the other’s rate.

So clearly – OTHER FACTORS ARE IN PLAY and need to be addressed. It would appear unlikely that if all firearms are vanished away with magic – that troubled souls will never consider switching to another method.

As it stands now:

97% of women who take their own life DO NOT use a gun.

90% of men who take their own life DO NOT use a gun.

In the case of both genders – simple rope accounts for half or more of all deaths ruled suicide.

It is harder to acquire to acquire data on people who take their lives by other methods despite having a firearm as an option.

There is a danger here of agenda trumping science. Of political policy interfering with the identifying and targeting of the true issues in play. For example when it was suggested that firearms safety be introduced in some schools the immediate response of many was “No” – because it may ‘legitimize’ the role of firearms in our society.

This ignores another fact. That there are almost a quarter of a million licensed firearm owners in New Zealand. With the friends and families who shoot under their supervision the number of shooters easily doubles. An issue exists.

Thanks to our systems of vetting and mandated security inspections, New Zealand avoids many of the American horrors. Perhaps we can also thank a much lower dependence on prescribed medications. Some studies would suggest so.

But one crime or one suicide is one too many if it can reasonably be prevented. To feel that you have a solution to an important problem is the qualification for a TV psychic – NOT a scientist.

Our academics now need to run a very real gut check. Will they now just shrug off the clear evidence because they have their truth? Or swallow their pride and get on with actually saving lives here.

If anything, the act of taking a firearm from a locked safe and loading it, under unsafe conditions, could trigger a rethinking of a desperate person’s actions. The sheer wrongness of that, after years of negative reinforcement, could cause pause.

We just don’t know.

What was NOT presented to the assembled folk at that seminar was anything remotely like evidence. Now we have some. Let us act accordingly.

 

Mike Loder is a firearm control advocate who has researched international responses to the firearm safety issue over 25 years.


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A guest post submitted to Whaleoil and edited by Whaleoil staff.

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