Correlation or Causation? Connecting Gun Laws and Suicides

In observation of Suicide Prevention Month, a recent Governing article identifies a strong correlation between state gun laws and elevated gun suicide rates.

torso of a woman with long hair wearing a shirt that says "mental health matters"

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its first-ever report on firearm deaths in May of this year. According to the CDC, the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the conditions underlying gun violence, including “changes and disruptions to services and education, mental stress, social isolation, and economic stressors, including job loss, housing instability, and difficulty covering daily expenses.”

A more nuanced report created by the Everytown for Gun Safety and New York University Langone Health, entitled “Gun Suicide in Cities,” uses the CDC’s data to provide a snapshot of gun-related suicides in cities across the country. The report found that “the rate of gun suicides [in cities] increased 11 percent between 2014 and 2020.”

Pointing to a study indicating that guns make suicide attempts more lethal, with “nearly 90 percent” resulting in death, Governing argues that increased gun access results in increased suicide fatalities. Likewise, Everytown’s report states:

Cities in states with the strongest gun violence prevention laws have about half the rate of people who die by gun suicide as those in states with the weakest laws, demonstrating the importance of legislative action in preventing gun violence in cities.

Governing quotes Marc Gourevitch, chair of the Department of Population Health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, on the unintended consequences of lax gun laws on urban jurisdictions:

When we think of firearms in cities and the harm they cause, our minds tend to go straight to the shooting of others. One lesson from this analysis is that it is important to focus attention on reducing the availability of guns to people who might be considering suicide.

An analyst with the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) compared gun suicide rates by state and sorted each state into three categories based on their “number of gun law provisions” – low, medium, and high. The analyst found that “[t]he states with the fewest number of gun laws had the highest rate of gun suicides, two times higher than those in the ‘high’ category.” Similarly, using its proprietary gun law ranking system, Everytown found that “[c]ities in states with strongest gun violence prevention laws had half as many gun suicides as those in states with the weakest laws.” Governing suggests that the difference might be explained by laws concerning safe storage practices and extreme risk protection orders.

In Maryland, Baltimore City had a firearm suicide rate of 3.30 per 100,000 people from 2016 to 2020, placing the City in the lowest tier of Everytown’s five categories. In the same category are Frederick (2.51), Rockville (2.64), Gaithersburg (2.65), and Bowie (4.1). Coincidentally, concerning the strength of its laws, Maryland ranks seventh in Everytown’s ranking. Neighboring Virginia is ranked fourteenth in terms of gun laws and has several cities falling in the second and third highest categories for gun-related suicides.

Regardless, neither the KFF nor Everytown studies can be considered “causal.” As noted by the KFF analyst, these studies “simply [look] at two things that are happening at the same time.” Additional factors must be considered when addressing suicide fatalities, including the availability of mental health and crisis intervention services – a recent emphasis of Maryland public policy.

Individuals in crisis and may be considering suicide are encouraged to call 9-8-8.

Read the full Governing article.