Friday, October 30, 2015

Suicide rates and gun ownership

Suicides account for a large percentage of deaths by firearms.  As somebody who values my Second Amendments rights, it behooves me to talk about the connection between firearms and suicides.

Correlation does not prove causality

This is one of the first rules in statistics.

A very simple word picture to prove the point:  We all know that a rising tide lifts all boats.  A naive statistician might look at the data and conclude that lifting one boat, perhaps with a crane, would result in all of the boats in the harbor also being lifted.

In the real world, most metrics are not as strongly correlated as the elevation of the boats in the harbor.  A problem solver might note correlation between many factors.  He/she will first look for causality relationships between those factors that have the strongest correlation.

Gun ownership rates and suicide rates

Anti Second Amendment "progressives" like to point to correlation between gun ownership rates and suicide rates.   It is very clear to them, reducing availability of the tool will reduce the likelihood of a successful suicide.

 In an attempt to minimize the "noise" in the data, I am showing the five states with the highest suicide rates and the five states with the lowest suicide rates.  This is called "Latin Squares" in Design-of-Experiment.  All rates are suicides per 100,000 residents.  Gun ownership is in percentage.

One of the issues that is problematic with the data is that there is not very much separation between Maryland, Massachusetts and Utah.  Perhaps within the margin of error of the gun ownership data.  Note that the forty states "in the middle" are not shown.

Mental Health Maintenance

People are social animals.  Perhaps suicide rate correlates more strongly with population density.  Lets compare.

There is so much separation that the chart is not readable.
Distributions like this suggest the need for a logrithmic scale

All I can say is "Wow!"
M. Scott Peck once characterized "counseling" as a stand-in for a good, deep friendship, the kind of friend that you feel safe in confiding your deepest shames, fears, failings and successes.

Low population density means that potential friends are farther away.

Low population density means that mental health professionals are more distant.  In some cases, mental health professionals have an active dislike of American West culture and refuse to provide services to the same. 

Psychology Professor at U-T refuses to teach classes if guns might be present.  In many other professions this would be considered dereliction of duty.

Low population density is often a disincentive for any health professionals to relocate to your area.  They have bills to pay and debt to work off.


Gun ownership rate and suicide rate are linked but it is not a pure "causal" link.  They are linked because they both share a relationship with low population density.

People who live in states with low population density tend to own guns because they have more opportunity to use them.  Thus, guns are an investment they can exercise.  People who live in densely populated states have fewer opportunities to shoot their guns.  Consequently, guns tend to be an investment that provides little return.

The data suggests that people in the states with the lowest population are more likely to seek suicide than states with higher population density.  One possible reason is due to the difficulty in talking face-to-face with friends and the difficulty in getting professional medical help.

In the interest of even-handedness, I will note that suicide attempts made with guns are more likely to be successful than attempts made with other methods.

I like to stay positive.  One thing we can do is to slow down and actively listen to one person today.  It is best to listen to the one person who seems to be hurting the most.  Regardless of who you choose, let them know that you think the world is a better place because they are here and let them know that we are pulling for them because we are all in this together


  1. Very timely blog post. Thanks. I know someone who can use this advise.

  2. As an engineer I love it when people notice the might need something besides cartesian coordinates. The rest of the states are probably not going to hurt your correlation between suicide rates and population density. Other interesting data: actual numbers of mental health practicioners per capita by state rather than just using population as a proxy, and also suicide rates by any other means other than firearms.

    1. I considered some of those metrics. Even if Wyoming had the same level of practicioners, the vast distances still pose a logistical problem for anybody not living in Cheyenne, Casper, or Laramie. The patient is defeated by the distances and crappy winter weather.

      The other issue is that much more detail would probably qualify as a Master's thesis in Psychology. I don't know if I could live with myself if somebody gave me one of those. Plus, there is the risk of my leading students into perdition should they find themselves temped to plagiarize my work.

  3. How many big Indian reservations does the urban east coast have? What is the rate of suicide by race?
    That is the first question that jumped into my head, along with the weather conditions.

  4. Psyche counselling, especially in 'remote' states/places is lacking to non-existent... As you've pointed out. I would also like to see the breakdown by ethnicity. I think that plays a part also!