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More than 60 percent of the 31,000 gun deaths in the United States each year result from suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One of the arguments used by supporters of gun control is that restricting access to guns could prevent some of those suicides.
Some gun-control opponents dispute that, arguing that suicidal people will simply find another way to kill themselves.
Those opposite positions were expressed when WPRI-TV taped a debate April 12 on "Newsmakers" featuring two state representatives -- Republican Michael Chippendale of Foster and Democrat Linda Finn of Middletown.
Finn said gun-related suicides are "primarily young adults, young men having access to firearms and killing themselves."
"If an individual is under enough emotional or psychological distress where they’re going to commit suicide, the availability of a gun is not a factor," Chippendale responded.
He went on to explain, "There’s bridges to jump off. There are drugs to take. There are plenty of ways, if one is in such a state of mind to dispatch their own lives, where they will do it. The availability of a gun is not what makes a person commit suicide, mental illness is. A firearm is a tool."
We were interested in Chippendale's assertion that the availability of a gun is not a factor in whether a person commits suicide because suicidal people just find other ways to end their lives, a phenomenon researchers refer to as "substitution."
Chippendale sent us to two studies to support his claim.
The first, done in Australia and published in 2010 in the Medical Journal of Australia, compared suicide rates before and after the country instituted strict gun restrictions and a gun-buyback program. After one fifth of the guns were taken out of circulation, gun-related suicides decreased but suicides by hanging increased, suggesting that at least some people were switching to that method. (The low rate of gun use in Australia made it difficult to be definitive.)
The other study was published in 1992 by the New England Journal of Medicine. Chippendale highlighted a chart saying that although having a gun in the home made it 4.8 times more likely that a successful suicide would occur, there were other factors such as whether someone was using illicit drugs, or had been hospitalized due to drinking, or was taking mental illness medication. But it didn’t address the substitution issue.
The chief author, Dr. Arthur Kellermann, now a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corporation, said he published a more-relevant study in 1990 that compared suicide rates in Seattle and neighboring Vancouver, similar cities with different gun cultures.
That analysis found that while the risk of gun suicide was more than twice as high in gun-friendly Seattle, that was offset by the fact that non-gun suicides were 1.5 times more common in Vancouver.
"There is evidence of substitution," but it's far from universal, he said. It's mostly likely in cases where someone is hell-bent on killing themselves. "For younger groups and suicides that are more impulsive, I think that ready access to a highly lethal means does make a difference. In many of those cases, if they survive the attempt, they are grateful they didn't die and have a chance at getting their act together."
In contrast to the few studies Chippendale offered to support his statement, we found several more that didn't. In addition, other suicide experts with whom we spoke said bluntly that Chippendale is wrong because suicide is usually an impulsive act, and having a gun available dramatically increases the chance that any attempt will be successful. Between 80 percent and 90 percent of those who use a gun die, compared with 3 percent to 6 percent of those who try by another means, according to various studies. Most people who survive one attempt don't try again.
"If you are determined, you will eventually find a way to die. What people don't understand is for many suicidal people, that period of intense suicidality doesn't last that long," said Catherine Barber of the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center.
Among people interviewed after they nearly died from a suicide attempt, 71 percent said they had only felt suicidal for one hour or less before they tried to take their lives and only 13 percent said it was a day or more.
And other data suggest that most people don't look for other means of suicide if a gun isn't handy.
A soon-to-be-released Harvard study found that in 16 "high-gun" states where 50 percent of the households have a firearm, the total number of suicides in 2008 and 2009 was 11,889. In six "low-gun" states with a comparable population, there were half as many suicides -- 6,038. The reason: the rate of firearm suicides was a whopping 77 percent lower than in the "high-gun" states.
The same trend is clear in earlier data from 1999 to 2007.
And it's not because people are less-prone to suicide in "low-gun" states. In fact, the estimated number of suicide attempts was 23 percent higher in the low-gun states.
So, Barber asked, if Chippendale were correct, "why wouldn’t we simply see more non-firearm suicides in the low-gun states and roughly equal suicide rates across the two groups?" But you don't.
Other studies also suggested that Chippendale is wrong.
In Israel, the Israeli Defense Force had a high suicide rate that dropped by 40 percent once the troops were prohibited from taking their guns with them when they went home for the weekend.
In Great Britain, where putting your head in the oven was once a common way to kill yourself, the suicide rate dropped by a third when the country started using a less-toxic form of natural gas.
In Sri Lanka, where the preferred method of suicide was poisoning with pesticide, the rate dropped by half once the country switched in 1995 to pesticides that are less toxic to humans.
If Chippendale were correct, the suicide rate in those countries wouldn’t have gone down because these were people intent on suicide, Barber said.
Said David N. Miller, a professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Albany and and president-elect of the American Association of Suicidology: "Restricting the means of suicide in one area (for example, restricting access to guns) does not inevitably lead to an increase in suicide by other methods, as the politician suggests. In fact, this often does not occur."
State Rep. Michael Chippendale said, "If an individual is under enough emotional or psychological distress where they’re going to commit suicide, the availability of a gun is not a factor."
There is evidence that such substitution takes place, but it is limited and contradicted by other data.
Most experts told us the real issue is impulsiveness. Some people determined to kill themselves are locked into that decision and will find another method if a gun isn't handy.
But research suggests that most suicide attempts are not the result of such premeditation. Their determination is spur-of-the-moment. Thus, the presence or absence of a firearm can play a big role in whether the person is successful.
Because the statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression, we rate it Mostly False.
(If you have a claim you’d like PolitiFact Rhode Island to check, e-mail us at [email protected]. And follow us on Twitter: @politifactri.)
Google Books, "Firearms and Violent Death in the United States" chapter in Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy With Evidence and Analysis, 2013, accessed April 17, 2013
WPRI.com, "Newsmakers 4/12: Rep. Finn, Rep. Chippendale on gun control," April 12, 2013, accessed April 15, 2013
Interview and e-mails, Michael Chippendale, state senator, April 17, 2013
MJA.com.AU, "Suicide in Australia: meta-analysis of rates and methods of suicide between 1988 and 2007," Medical Journal of Australia, April 19, 2010, accessed April 18, 2013
AndrewLeigh.org, "Do Gun Buybacks Save Lives? Evidence From Panel Data," American Law and Economic Review, August 20, 2010, accessed April 18, 2013
NEJM.org, "Suicide in the Home in Relation to Gun Ownership," Aug. 13, 1992 and "Firearm Regulations and Rates of Suicide -- A Comparison of Two Metropolitan Areas," Feb. 8, 1990, New England Journal of Medicine, both accessed April 18, 2013
Interview, Arthur Kellermann, senior policy analyst, the Rand Corporation, April 18, 2013
Interview and e-mails, Catherine Barber, Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center, April 17-19, 2013
E-mail, David N. Miller, president-elect, American Association of Suicidology, April 18, 2013
BJP.RCPsych.org, "Fatal and non-fatal repetition of self-harm -- Systematic review," The British Journal of Psychiatry, 2002, April 18, 2013
HSPH.Harvard.edu, "Impulsivity and Crises," undated, accessed April 18, 2013
NCBI.NLM.NIH.gov, "Decrease in suicide rates after a change in policy reducing access to firearms in adolescents: a naturalist epidemiological study," Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, Oct. 2010, accessed through Medline; "The coal gas story. United Kingdom suicide rates, 1960-71," Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, June 1976 and "The impact of pesticide regulations on suicide in Sri Lanka," International Journal of Epidemiology, Aug. 27, 2007, both accessed through U.S. National Library of Medicine, all accessed April 18, 2013
PolitiFact.com, "Stephen King says since Australia cracked down on guns, homicides by gun dropped 60 percent," Jan. 31, 2013.
E-mail, Kevin Breault, professor, Middle Tennessee State University, April 18, 2013
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