The Media Doesn’t Talk About Suicide

Slate has been collecting media reports on gun deaths since Newton. What they found was a big discrepancy between the gun deaths reported in the media and the actual gun deaths as counted by the CDC. Chris Kirk explains:

The CDC counts about 32,000 people killed with guns each year, while Slate’s database only has one-third of that. Why the huge discrepancy?

Earlier this month Slate launched an effort to categorize the gun deaths in our system. That effort verified the source of the discrepancy: suicides. We’ve missed nearly all gun-related suicides, because our information is based on media reports, and the media typically avoid reporting on suicides.

The Media’s Picture of Gun Violence (suicides in red)

Media

The CDC’s Picture of Gun Violence (suicides in red)

CDC

Justin Briggs and I also have an article in Slate on suicides and guns. I’ll cover that  in another post.

Comments

Part of the reason for the media’s picture, I suspect, is that people are concerned with the control they have over their own fate. A report on someone being shot by a stranger comes with the implication that maybe you will be too, you or someone you care about.

I don't think the point is that the media is deceiving people on gun deaths with any sort of intent. The point is just that it is, and since folks rely on that, they fail to recognize the massive amount of gun suicides.

The "why" of this phenomenon is far less important than the fact that it exists and the implications thereof.

I don't think it's a matter of intent or deception. People don't really care how people killed themselves because it doesn't affect them. They care how people get murdered and the degree to which they can protect against it. I think a much more interesting infographic (to most people) would be gun deaths vs car crashes, as I would guess this illustrates the availability heuristic a bit more than a suicide/murder comparison.

Gun suicides are not "massive." They are, thankfully, rare.

Gun suicides to total suicides or gun suicides to gun deaths aren't the correct measures of mass. Gun suicides to total population is.

'Gun suicides to total suicides or gun suicides to gun deaths aren’t the correct measures of mass. '

Why not? If the majority of deaths attributable to firearms every year in the U.S. is the fact that it involves the death of their owner, that seems a very relevant measure.

Especially in light of how most Americans view gun violence - which most certainly does not encompass the idea that the majority of gun fatalities, year for year, are suicide, having nothing to do with crime or self-defense.

No, my point is that gun suicide is not a leading cause of death. We have limited resources to combat preventable deaths, and liberty weighs in the balance of some of the preventative policies.

Why is government in the "prevent suicide" business anyway? Where does it get that authority and why is this a priority? Have we exhausted the marginal gains from public service campaigns on the leading causes of death: driving, obesity, smoking, and alcohol?

'No, my point is that gun suicide is not a leading cause of death.'

But it is the leading cause of death of gun owners in the U.S., outweighing all other fatalities caused by firearms.

Really? I'll accept their point that actual press coverage of suicides is limited, but IMHO the point has always been to exaggerate the likely benefit of stricter gun control. Just for example, two post-Newton pleas in the NY Times:

"But this singular opportunity to curb the gun violence must not be wasted in more of the posturing in Washington that tolerates 30,000 gun deaths a year. "

And

"But the harsh truth is that too many Americans are dying from gun-related shootings — more than 30,000 each year and more than one million since 1960."

Both articles went on to call for the usual gun control smorgasbord but made no attempt to explain how an "assault weapon" ban or limits on magazine capacity would reduce suicides. Unless we face a crisis of people shooting themselves fifteen times and bleeding out, I think the suicide topic is one the gun controllers would prefer to ignore, other than as an opportunity to hype the numbers.

So, considering how firearm suicide gets treated, let's look at the end of this recent article from the Post -

'Since Columbine, Colorado has endured other mass shootings, including the killing of 12 people in a movie theater in nearby Aurora in 2012. But it was not until after the Newtown massacre that state lawmakers moved to enact stricter gun control laws.

Two Democratic lawmakers were recalled from office earlier this year for backing the laws, and a third recently resigned to avoid a recall election.' http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/student-gunman-wounds-2-classmates-in-colo-school/2013/12/13/d0c33a48-6454-11e3-af0d-4bb80d704888_story.html

'I think the suicide topic is one the gun controllers would prefer to ignore, other than as an opportunity to hype the numbers.'

So, no 'gun controller' has ever had a family member or friend kill themselves with a firearm? A sort of Jim Brady moment? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Brady

Because a lot of the more dedicated 'smoking controllers' also had direct experience of what it was like to have have someone die from the results of smoking.

+1

It's well known that humans make forward-thinking judgments based on an availability heuristic, i.e. if people hear about it more it they think that it must be more frequent relative to things they don't hear about. The implication is that the majority of pro- and anti-gun control partisans are likely using an availability heuristic that gives a flawed portrayal of the actual primary causes of violent deaths from guns.

Since Sir Isaac Newton?

Really interesting stuff.

'The Media Doesn’t Talk About Suicide'

Neither does this comment section - pointing it out is a sure way to be dismissed.

Nice to see how an academic is able to use any resource to make a public policy point.

You do agree there's a valid reason for media avoiding suicide stories, right?

Actually, when the majority of death by firearms in the U.S. is by suicide, the answer is no, as my comments for a while suggest.

That Prof. Tabarrok seems to agree with this is to his credit, by the way.

The problem with firearms in terms of suicide is just how effective they are. Not all suicides are a cry for help, of course - but those involving firearms pretty much ensure that help will never be provided.

Uh, don't you think that the selected method of suicide is related to the seriousness of one's intent to do so?

Interesting question, considering the somewhat spotty research involving suicide attempts, such as people jumping from bridges. It seems as if universally, those jumpers who survived regretted their decision as soon as they leaped. Since generally, firearms are the most lethal form of suicide, it is difficult to compare the response of those who did not succeed in blowing out their brains.

Nonetheless, as pointed out in past comments, the experiences of NYC and NJ are certainly suggestive in pointing out that those using firearms are more likely to succeed in dying than those using other methods, regardless of their longer term desires.

@Prior

I've frequently read that men are successful at suicide three times as often as women, but men attempt suicide at only one third the rate of women. The difference in success rates is strongly linked to the chosen method. Women are more likely to overdose on pills which is unreliable. Guns probably are the most effective method.

You raise an interesting point about bridge jumpers although I cannot confirm the universality of their regret. I would think that having every bone in your body broken but surviving nonetheless would conceive regret. Changing their minds on the way down? I think that when a suicidal person is faced with the prospect of imminent harm, their fear of death overcomes their aversion to the pain that brought on suicidal ideations. Guns don't give you much time to ponder death.

But what if the majority of people who backed away from suicide attempts had a gun in their mouths? Wouldn't that change the interpretation of this result?

Here is a good article - http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/10/13/031013fa_fact

'Survivors often regret their decision in midair, if not before. Ken Baldwin and Kevin Hines both say they hurdled over the railing, afraid that if they stood on the chord they might lose their courage. Baldwin was twenty-eight and severely depressed on the August day in 1985 when he told his wife not to expect him home till late. “I wanted to disappear,” he said. “So the Golden Gate was the spot. I’d heard that the water just sweeps you under.” On the bridge, Baldwin counted to ten and stayed frozen. He counted to ten again, then vaulted over. “I still see my hands coming off the railing,” he said. As he crossed the chord in flight, Baldwin recalls, “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.”'

Conspiracy theories & ideologies aside, why don't you for a moment think about the risk of copycat suicides? This isn't mere speculation you know, the risk is real & well documented.

There's a reason most journalists are told to desist from reporting them. And it's not because the gun lobby bribes them.

Who said anything about conspiracies? The media are a distorting filter, in this as in many other things, usually unintentionally.

Actually, when the majority of death by firearms in the U.S. is by suicide

The majority of deaths by firearms is by suicide in all developed countries, so what is your point?

Well, the point being that guns kill their owners more than they kill anyone else. Not the best phrasing, admittedly, to point out that firearms are more fatal to their owners than any other class of people.

"guns kill their owners"

Why don't you think about that a bit more deeply and see if you can find a perspective that isn't based on retardation? Pet dogs and tigers can kill their owners...guns most certainly cannot.

The establishment media has so many faults and biases that it's probably a good thing they avoid substantive issues generally.

Suicide is way more than they can handle competently. But they love the gun angle and the suicide theme is just a convenience to push their primary ant-gun bias.

Why do humans commit suicide ? Why do so few humans (especially teenagers) actually commit suicide, given the human condition and their ultimate mortality ? You will never get any serious coverage of those fundamental issues from the media.

Well my utilitarian POV is I'm happy media doesn't cover them very much just because of the chance of copycat suicides etc.

However, the media covers the hell out of mass shootings, and those seem to also be subject to copycat effects.

If they wanted to promote their anti-gun bias, they would publish suicide by gun stories. They don't, so there goes one of your ideas.

The media actually publishes a lot on suicide. It has closely followed the suicide issue for our troops over the last ten years and how they have increased. As a general topic, it gets covered a lot. I suggest you import this new product called Google to your computer and try looking up suicide.

Steve

"If they wanted to promote their anti-gun bias, they would publish suicide by gun stories. They don’t, so there goes one of your ideas."

Well, suicide prevention might (I say 'might') be an argument in favor of gun confiscation but it hardly meshes with an assault weapons ban or a limit on magazine capacity. So downplaying gun suicides also downplays the irrelevance of most gun control efforts.
That said, I think downplaying the reporting of civilian suicides takes place for a lot of reasons, and I am fine with it.

And yet many times articles and commentators will say that over 30k people die from guns each year when speaking abt gun control merits.

A big problem with covering suicides in the news is that it breeds copycats. In my hometown, a troubling number of young people took their lives in the same manner over the course of a few years, an unconscionable consequence for any writer. Our newspapers, police and parents got together and came up with an integrated solution providing better support, supervision of the most frequented areas and more tactful handling of the stories in the press.

Most media organizations — newspapers, TV stations, etc. — are very aware of the research that shows reporting on suicide leads to a wave of more suicides. Many newspapers have style guides that discourage reporting the manner of a suicide, or even reporting it, unless it has some other significant and overriding news value.

Which is an interesting point - but then, it isn't as if the media need to actually report about the effectiveness of putting a barrel in one's mouth and pulling the trigger, as the knowledge is pretty universal.

It's not the mechanics of how to kill oneself by gun that is the problem. Rather, seeing the lack of inhibition of others to do so is the externality.

In San Francisco where gun laws are strict (or, alternatively, where fewer people choose to have guns), a common method of suicide is bridge jumping. No one needs lessons in that, yet the attraction of the Golden Gate Bridge to suicides has to be more than just convenience. There are plenty of high places to leap from in that city.

If we allowed the sale of a pill that caused instant death, 100% of the time, could us gun owners be spared this flimsy and transparent excuse to deprive us of our rights and focus on the problem of suicidal ideations?

Another common form of suicide in the SFBA is stepping in front of a train. These generally make the news (as disrupting the commute of thousands of people is newsworthy) and lead to copycats. And they often traumatize railroad engineers and riders.

http://kalw.org/post/caltrain-engineer-talks-about-coping-track-deaths

This is a key point. Not only do suicide reports lead to copycats, but reporting the manner of suicide leads others to adopt that method. Unfortunately, this media "bias" is a good and necessary blindspot.

What are the suicide rates of children who compete in gun-related competition, I wonder.

Knowledge creates respect.

Dont know. The gun lobby had laws passed that make it almost impossible to collect and publish data on guns and their use.

Steve

The gun lobby hasn't suppressed stats on suicide by gun.

The gun lobby hasn't suppressed stats on who competed in gun competitions.

Suppressing lists of gun ownership in no way affects an analysis of this phenomenon.

Have you got any figures for suicide by swimming pool?

A self-sprung leak?

How many people put guns into their mouths with the intention to pull the trigger, yet remove it and never get that close to suicide again?

Guns might be the largest preventer of suicide.

The fact that people with suicidal ideations prefer a method that is quick, painless, certain, and irrevocable makes handguns nearly ideal.

The focus is still on the method rather than the problem. If we had a pill that was cheap and caused instant, painless death 100% of the time, we could avoid this distracting conversation about guns.

Simple. We'd outlaw that pill.

Where can I get this pill?

Gentlemen, it is a thought experiment not to be taken too literally. We could easily create such a pill with cyanide, strychnine, or ricin. There are many toxic gases that are absolutely painless - for example a room full of pure nitrogen.

I'm merely pointing out that the only reason we are having this discussion about suicide and guns is that guns just happen to be one of the most effective tool for suicide. In fact, it is easier and more certain to kill yourself with a gun than someone else. Handguns usually only kill when they strike a major blood vessel or organ, and these are well-protected in the body. A rifle or shotgun - now that's a different story.

If handguns fell off the top ten best ways to kill yourself, we wouldn't be having this conversation or threatening gun rights.

Absolutely.

So I'm confused, what's the argument here. Isn't this exactly the argument Alex Tabborak and other gun control advocates are making?

"most effective tool for suicide." kinda sums it up.

Earlier this month Slate launched an effort to categorize the gun deaths in our system. That effort verified the source of the discrepancy: suicides. We’ve missed nearly all gun-related suicides, because our information is based on media reports, and the media typically avoid reporting on suicides.

Ah, Slate.

It took them that kind of effort to realize something they could have found online in about 30 seconds if they'd bothered to do anything other than look at "media reports", and just gone straight to the CDC data in the first place.

I'm not a Professional Journalist and I knew that - and indeed even if they'd looked at pretty much any comment thread on guns they'd find that people constantly mention that fact...

Comments for this post are closed