A new study, coauthored by a libertarian-aligned economist, has found strong evidence that the spread of gun ownership around the United States is a threat to public health. Guns, this research suggests, really do cause people to kill themselves when they wouldn’t otherwise.
Gun research is often unfairly tarred as “biased” liberal hackwork, but Alex Tabarrok, one of the study’s two authors, isn’t anyone’s idea of a progressive. Tabarrok teaches at George Mason University, a famously libertarian-inclined economics department. He’s a fellow at the libertarian Mercatus Institute and one of the lead authors of Marginal Revolution, one of the web’s most famous libertarian-inclined blogs.
Tabarrok and his coauthor, Justin Briggs, put together a bunch of data on gun ownership and suicide. After controlling for a series of potentially confounding factors, Tabarrok and Briggs ran a series of regressions to establish any links between guns and suicides.
Their results were staggering. “We find strong, positive effects of gun prevalence on suicide,” they write — and how. “A 1% increase in the household gun ownership rate,” Tabarrok explains in a Marginal Revolution post, “leads to a .5 to .9% increase in suicides.”
To put that in perspective, there were about 38,285 suicides in 2011. Tabarrok and Briggs’ numbers suggest that a mere one percent decrease in national gun ownership could plausibly lower that count by 345 bodies.
But wouldn’t people who don’t have guns just kill themselves in some other way? No, according to Tabarrok and Briggs. “The [gun-suicide remains significant,” they report, “despite also finding significant evidence that gun ownership causes substitution towards gun-suicide rather than other methods of suicide.” Tabarrok breaks this down further: “when gun ownership decreases we see a big decrease in gun-suicide and a substantial but less than fully compensating increase in non-gun suicide.” So, in the end, there’s “a net decrease in the number of suicides.”
As Tabarrok and (also libertarian) Megan McArdle note, this is entirely consistent with what we know about suicide. Far from being a well-thought out plan, suicide is often an impulsive decision rather than a rational choice to end one’s life. In one study McArdle takes a look at, researchers followed up with group of people who were prevented from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. They found that the majority didn’t attempt suicide again — rather, they made one terrible decision and thankfully survived.
Guns are designed to kill people. That makes it easier for people who own them to succeed in killing themselves, even if, like the Golden Gate jumpers, it turns out they don’t really want to die. That’s the underlying logic behind Tabarrok and Briggs’ grisly finding.
Tabarrok and Briggs’ research is only the latest work to underscore the link between gun ownership and death. The largest credible study of homicide, released in September, found an almost identical rise in the homicide rate to the rise in suicides Tabarrok and Briggs document per every one percent increase in gun ownership. While there are many causes of homicide and suicide, this growing body of work suggests that, all things being equal, there would be significantly fewer violent deaths in the United States if there were fewer guns.
But this research, despite its significant importance, is still frustratingly limited. Tabarrok concludes his post by noting that “the results in the paper appear to be robust but the data on gun ownership is frustratingly sparse due to political considerations.” That’s a polite way of saying the NRA and Republicans have stifled scientific research: during the Clinton Presidency, the NRA and several Republican allies rammed through legislation that prevented the federal government from funding research that could be “used to advocate or promote gun control.” In practice, this has hobbled researchers’ ability to pinpoint the role guns play in America’s crime and, more importantly, which policy solutions would best save lives lost to gun violence.