If you're thinking of venturing outside your home today, the news may change your mind. "Gun deaths in US reach highest level in nearly 40 years, CDC data reveal," blared Thursday's headline on CNN.com. A press release from Everytown for Gun Safety noted that "39,773 people were killed by gun violence in 2017 — approximately 1,100 more than were killed by motor vehicle accidents."
The picture these announcements evoke is of mass shootings and random gun crimes that pose a mortal danger to every American. But that image is not quite accurate. The number of homicides actually declined last year — and is believed to have fallen again this year. Our streets have gotten safer.
So what gives? When gun control advocates cite "gun deaths," they are not talking just about slayings of people by other people. Sixty percent of these deaths, it turns out, are not homicides but suicides. Most of the people who inflict fatal gunshot wounds harm only themselves.
"The rate of suicide in general increased from 2016 to 2017, and the increase was actually greater for the non-firearm suicide rate than for the firearm suicide rate," Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck tells me — "suggesting that something that affects suicide but is unrelated to firearms is responsible for the recent suicide increase."
To lump suicides with homicides is to confuse the gun issue. The causes behind American murders explain very little about American suicides. Murder victims are disproportionately African-American. The suicide rate, by contrast, is three times higher among whites than blacks.
Critics of our permissive gun laws make much of the fact that Americans are unusually prone to use firearms to kill themselves. But it's easy to find other methods.
Japan has among the strictest gun control regimes on earth and one of the lowest murder rates. But its suicide rate is higher than ours. Almost no Japanese suicides involve firearms; 2 in 3 are by hanging. Canadians, who are somewhat less likely to kill themselves than Americans, are much more likely to resort to hanging or poison.
Groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety argue that if the United States had stricter gun laws and fewer guns, it would also suffer fewer suicides. The evidence says otherwise.
When Australia adopted its strict National Firearms Agreement, gun homicides and suicides, which had been declining, continued to decline — as did non-gun homicides and suicides. A study by Kleck concluded that the restrictions "did not reduce either suicide or homicide rates below what, based on pre-1996 trends, they would have been in the absence of the NFA."
A 2004 review by the U.S. government's National Research Council acknowledged, "Some gun control policies may reduce the number of gun suicides, but they have not yet been shown to reduce the overall risk of suicide in any population." International data, it noted, "do not reveal a consistent association between gun ownership and overall suicide rates."
There is evidence that people who have firearms in their homes are more likely to kill themselves than people who don't. But correlation is not causation.
If people who have library cards read more books than people who don't, that doesn't mean getting a card causes people to read. People who read a lot, after all, tend to have library cards. It may be that people who are prone to suicide are more inclined to buy guns — not that people who buy guns are more prone to suicide.
A recent report by the Rand Corp., a California-based think tank, said, "Available empirical research does not provide strong causal evidence for the effects of gun prevalence on suicide risk."
Here's another factor, noted by scholars in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health: "Suicidal individuals vary in the strength of their intention to die, which can influence their choice of a suicide method." Firearms tend to be preferred by those most determined to die. Depriving these unfortunates of guns would not make them want to live.
In any case, the sort of gun control measures that are politically conceivable in the United States would be irrelevant. We could ban semi-automatic "assault weapons" or 15-round magazines, but neither is needed by those who want to shoot themselves.
There are many ways to combat the scourge of suicide: facilitating mental health care, substance abuse treatment, employment and social support. Focusing on firearms is missing the point.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.