Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Gun Death Statistics, Suicide Rates, and Gun Ownership


Detroit Free Press has a new op-ed piece: More people die from guns than car accidents in Michigan. Excerpt:

“The idea that gun deaths exceed motor vehicle deaths in 10 states is stunning when one considers that 90% of American households own a car, while fewer than a third own firearms,” VPC Legislative Director Kristen Rand said. “It is time to end firearms’ status as the last unregulated consumer product.”  Rand said her group’s state-by-state analysis compared gun and car deaths in 2009, the most recent year for which state-level data for both causes of death is available. Michigan reported 1,095 gun deaths that year — 10.98 per 100,000 residents — while recording only 977 deaths, or 9.8 per 100,000 residents, involving motor vehicles, including pedestrian accidents. 

I found this unsurprising, and a fairly typical advocacy piece from the gun-control side.  Eugene Volokh at the Volokh Conspiracy reports on this and adds these statistics:
But wait: The number of accidental gun deaths in Michigan in 2009 (the most recent year reported in WISQARS) was … 12, compared to 962 accidental motor-vehicle-related deaths. 99% of the gun deaths in Michigan that year consisted of suicides (575) and homicides (495).
I've seen statistics like these before for other states, and always found something puzzling - apart from the problems with gun control vs. gun rights.  Every set of statistics has a hefty majority of gun deaths as suicides - I think 572 suicides of gun owners per years in one state is a lot, enough that the percentage of gun owners would be diminishing over time as they kill themselves off.  But I haven't heard any statistics about gun ownership declining at the same rate as gun-related suicides - what's up with that?

Anyway, for me these statistics highlight that in practice, gun control/regulation is less related to accident prevention and crime reduction than it is to public policy about suicide and right-to-die.  I don't really support suicide "rights" or right-to-die (partly because I think it's too easy to use assisted suicide as a cover for murder, and partly because I think people underestimate how much of a duty they have to other people, like family and co-workers and neighbors, and partly for moral/biblical reasons), but the statistics seem to suggest that gun control should be a subset of public policy about suicide MORE than a subset of crime or accident prevention (the current approach).

Disclaimer - I'm not a gun owner and don't care much about gun regulations.  Regarding Second Amendment rights, I think we should have symmetry with First Amendment rights in the legal protections/exceptions to those  rights - that is, we protect free speech, freedom of worship, and free association, with lots of BUT's - you're not allowed to incite a stampede by shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater, you can be sued for libel or slander (despite your free speech), we can prohibit human sacrifices or smoking peyote even as part of religious services (despite your free exercise of religion rights), and we can arrest you for participating in a criminal conspiracy (despite your right to free association).  These seem like reasonable boundaries for First Amendment rights, minimally intrusive for most reasonable people, and I think we could tolerate a similar level of boundaries for Second Amendment rights.