Over the 2014/15 holiday season, a mass-murder in Edmonton and a gang-related shooting at an Ottawa shopping outlet once again dominated headlines. Shortly thereafter, the Charlie Hebdo incident occurred in France. These are the stories that we most often read about, and often drive the gun-control discussion.
But with most of the attention given to mass shootings and street crimes in the debate over public safety, it is easy to overlook the incidence of gun-related suicides. In reality, suicides account for over 70% of gun-related deaths in Canada.
It is true that guns are not the only means of committing suicide, nor are they the most common method in most countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) released its first ever report on suicides in 2014, in which it stated that hanging accounts for 50% of suicides in high-income countries, compared to 18% of cases involving firearms.
However, when focusing on the Americas alone, firearms account for 46% of suicides.
The report identifies a number of relevant interventions for health system and societal risk factors, including the restriction of access to means of suicide. There is a correlation between proportions of households owning firearms and proportions of gun-related suicide. Furthermore, restrictions on gun ownership in several countries have led to a reduction in gun-related suicides in those countries.
Firearms provide a reliable, quick and painless means of committing suicide for impulsive individuals with little chance of recovery and re-evaluation. Dr. Alan Drummond of the Canadian Association for Emergency Physicians had this to say in his support of keeping the long-gun registry:
“Suicide, contrary to public opinion, is often an impulsive gesture. Keeping guns away from depressed people is essential. In the assaults and murders I have seen that have involved guns, the perpetrators acted on impulse and the unsafely stored long gun was readily available.”
Unsuccessful suicide attempts using firearms, while rare, often leaves the individual with serious and irrecoverable injuries such as permanent brain injury, blindness and paralysis.
Common-sense arguments aside, the empirical evidence suggests that gun laws work in reducing the number of suicides. The Institut national de santé publique du Québec submitted that since the Firearms Act came into force, the number of suicides in Canada has dropped by an average of 250 per year. Michael Bryant, a former attorney-general of Ontario, has also made it known that he believes a gun registry lowers the rate of suicide in Canada:
“Suicides dropped dramatically in Canada thanks to the federal gun registry. Not only do statistics prove as much, it stands to reason that with improved gun safety comes decreased gun fatalities; with fewer tools-of-choice for suicides available, fewer suicides occur.”
Mr. Bryant also raised a legal issue in response to the then-proposed abolition of the long-gun registry: would the courts uphold a law that eliminates proven safety measures?
The relationship between gun laws and suicide is apparent, and should not be overlooked in the debate for tougher gun restrictions.