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You'd Have to Be Nuts (or Not) to Own a Gun

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Our Ryan Blitstein recently looked at the connection between a state's spending on social welfare and its suicide rate. There is a connection, the authors of one study determined, but the underlying reason remains unclear.

Two other aspects of suicide are not opaque; households with a gun see higher rates of suicide, and people with mental disorders are more likely to kill themselves. So Susan B. Sorenson and Katherine A. Vittes, both at the University of Pennsylvania, asked the provocative question, "Are gun owners more mentally and emotionally disturbed than people who do not own a gun?" (We'll allow a moment for the flip answers from both side of the debate to subside before continuing. Bitter people religiously clinging to their guns can have an extra dig.)

Their answer, derived from data contained in sociology's "gold standard" research, the General Social Survey, is the academic equivalent of an unequivocal no. "Population-based surveys indicate that gun owners and persons residing with gun owners are not more distressed or disordered than those who do not have a gun or do not live with someone who owns a gun," declares their paper in the June 2008 issue of Evaluation Review.

Despite this determination, suicide by firearm remains the most common form of gun death in the U.S.: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17,002 gun suicides and 12,353 gun homicides occurred in 2005, and 1 in 3 U.S. homes has a gun around or access to one. So the academics believe, although they haven't studied it specifically, that having a gun around increases the rate of suicide because guns are so damn good at what they were designed for.

"Thus, perhaps, impulse control, rather than mental disorder and distress, is a key distinguishing psychological difference between those who do and do not own a gun."

And that, in turn, provides succor for both sides on gun control.

On one hand, waiting periods are not a panacea.

Current policies about firearm ownership and possession are based largely on the assumption that we can identify and screen out individuals who should not have a gun — that is, those who either have not or who are believed to be at high risk for not behaving legally and responsibly. Such an approach may be accurate for those at the extremes — that is, those who have committed crimes and are at risk of committing subsequent violent crime or those who have become so psychiatrically disabled that the courts have intervened. These benchmarks, although subject to a range of processes that can be inconsistent and discriminatory, are used to draw a standard about firearm ownership and possession. Impulsivity and other such personal tendencies generally do not rise to the level of a diagnosable mental disorder that necessitates court intervention. If, as current research suggests, firearm owners and those who reside with them are more likely to kill themselves and they do not differ in terms of their mental health, the standard merits reconsideration.

And so, a waiting period might get someone past one impulsive self-destructive incident, but it may not once the legally purchased gun is nestled in the sock drawer.

Which is why that ticking-time-bomb aspect provides the coda to their research:

At this point, the peer-reviewed literature appears to indicate that personal and household ownership of a firearm increases the risk of both suicide and homicide victimization and perpetration. Risk is generally independent of the method used to store the firearm. In addition, the risk conferred by having a gun is independent of psychiatric status, and the present investigation finds no mental health differences between those who do and who do not have access to a firearm. Thus, our findings provide further support for efforts to reduce access to firearms as a way to reduce suicide.