The Impact of Gun Control on Suicide and Homicide across the Life Span

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The Impact of Gun Control on Suicide and Homicide Across the Life Span


One tactic which has been suggested to prevent suicide and homicide is to restrict the availability of lethal means for these acts. The effectiveness of this tactic over the life span was explored by examining the impact of the passage of gun control legislation in Canada in 1977 (Bill c - 51). The results indicated that, while the use of firearms for suicide was reduced a little after passage of this Act, this effect was not apparent for those over the age of 65. However, for homicide, the effect of the passage of the gun control legislation was stronger for victims over the age of 55. Several suggestions were made for future research on this topic.

In the last couple of decades, a popular proposal for reducing the incidence of violence, including suicide and homicide, has been restricting the availability of methods for committing violence. Stengel (1964) was one of the first to propose this as a means for decreasing the incidence of suicide, noting that the detoxification of domestic gas (from coal gas with a high carbon monoxide content to natural gas) might have reduced the suicide rate in the nations where the switch had taken place. Subsequent research on the detoxification of domestic gas in England supported Stengel's proposal (Kreitman, 1976), and the research has been extended to the detoxification of car exhaust and to the restriction of firearms (Clarke and Lester, 1989).

Countries differ in the most popular method for suicide, but firearms are the preferred method in some, including Canada and the United States. In the United States, Lester (1984) found that states with the stricter gun control laws had lower rates of suicide using guns but similar rates of suicide by other methods, suggesting that strict gun control laws reduced the suicide rate and that people did not switch to any great extent to other methods for suicide when guns were less readily available. However, some researchers have disputed this conclusion. In Canada, for example, Rich, Young, Fowler, Wagner and Black (1990) reported that stricter gun control laws in Toronto, Canada, led to a decrease in the percentage of suicides using guns but led to a matching increase in the percentage of suicides jumping to their death. The research,thus, presents mixed results.

Rich et al's (1990) study, however, was based on only a small sample of suicides in one city in Canada, making generalization of the statistical analysis problematic. A better opportunity for studying the effects of strict gun control laws on their use for suicide is provided by Canada's Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1977 (Bill C - 51), enforced since 1978. This Act required acquisition certification for all firearms, restricted the availability of some types of firearms to certain types of individuals, set up procedures for handling and storing firearms, required permits for those selling firearms, and increased the sentences for firearm offenses.

Early commentators on the impact of this Act (Mundt, 1990) found little impact of the Act on firearm violence in Canada, but presented only simple charts, with no statistical analysis of the trends. Lester and Leenaars (1993, 1994) remedied this omission and reported a preventive effect on suicide from the Act on suicide in Canada as a whole, with no evidence that switching to alternative methods for suicide took place. This result was supported by Carrington and Moyer (1994 a & b) who analyzed the impact of the Act in each of the Canadian provinces. In the United States, Loftin, McDowall, Wiersema, and Cottey (1991) reported similar results when the District of Columbia introduced a regional firearm regulation in 1976.

The research on suicide raises the question of what the impact of gun controls might be on homicide. This question arises, not only because firearms are commonly used for homicide, but also because some sociological theorists conceptualize suicide and homicide as similar responses to frustration, differing only in the object of the aggression (Leenaars & Lester, 1996). …