Judging from the news coverage, it would be natural to think that mass shootings with assault rifles are the most common form of gun violence. As is often the case, the extent of media coverage is no indicator of the true facts of the matter—to think otherwise would be to fall victim to the spotlight fallacy. While mass shootings are all too common, the number of people killed per year in such events is only a small fraction of deaths involving guns. The vast majority of gun deaths are self-inflicted: 21,334 of the 33,599 known gun deaths in 2014 were suicides. Of the remaining deaths, homicides accounted for 10,945, accidents 586 and police interventions resulted in 464 deaths. The death tolls in these three categories has been stable since 2000, but gun suicides increased significantly during this time. As should be expected, there have been various attempts to address this problem.
When attempts to prevent successful suicide focus on guns, a common counter is to repeat the saying “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Put in non-slogan form, the argument is that there is no reason to focus on guns because doing so will have no significant impact on suicide rates. Those who are intent on killing themselves will merely find some other means of doing so, be it hanging or pills. This is analogous to the response to other proposals to address gun violence. For example, when gun regulation is raised as a means of addressing mass shootings, the response is that people will simply use something else, such as homemade bombs.
This counter can be addressed by considering some key facts about guns and suicide. The first is that research indicates that a person will typically start planning a very short time before the attempt (often less than an hour). That is, there is typically a limited window of vulnerability. The second, and the most relevant, is that guns are very effective suicide machines: 85% of suicide attempts with guns succeed, followed by 69% for hanging. The use of poison succeeds 2% of the time. This is hardly surprising: guns are designed to kill effectively and quickly. At this point, an objector might contend that the effectiveness of guns is not really relevant—a person will just keep trying if they fail with a low success method. This leads to the third fact.
While it seems reasonable to believe that a person who tries to commit suicide and fails will keep trying, the evidence seems to show that the vast majority of people who fail do not try again. As such, if the first attempt fails, there probably will not be another—especially if there is an intervention on behalf of the person. As such, if a suicidal person did not have access to a gun, then his chance of not dying would be significantly better than if he did. This is not to ignore the other means of committing suicide; it is merely to consider the facts of the success rate.
While a lack of access to a gun would significantly reduce the chances a person will succeed in a suicide attempt, there is the problem of making this a reality. Some countries have addressed gun violence by very strong restrictions on gun ownership, thus reducing all forms of gun violence (including suicide). As a matter of political reality, this is not an option in the United States. As such, the challenge of suicide by gun must be addressed in other ways.
One approach, which is analogous to one of many proposals for addressing mass shootings, is a requirement to confirm the mental health a person purchasing a gun. In the case of suicide prevention, the mental health issues of concern would tend to be different from those involved with mass shootings or other forms of gun violence. Though this is reasonable, it does have two significant gaps. The first is that it does nothing about guns that are already owned. The second is that it requires that the person have an established and known history that would indicate a likely attempt at suicide.
In regards to guns already owned, the main solution is for the guns to be made inaccessible to the person. This could be done by the person themselves, by friends/relatives or by the authorities in certain cases. The main problem here is that suicide, as noted above, tends to not be planned well in advance—so there may be little or no time for an intervention. There are also the legal and practical challenges in taking a person’s guns away without their consent. If the person has proven themselves a danger to themselves (or others), then there are procedures for this. However, if a person is merely suspected of having the potential of committing suicide, there is the problem of justifying taking the person’s guns. Given that gun ownership is taken as a basic right, the authorities would have no legal right to take away a person’s guns without adequate justification. Friends and relatives, of course, would not need legal justification to intervene—but taking a person’s guns without his consent would be theft (not to mention the potential risk). This is analogous to attempts to prevent mass shootings by taking away guns from people who might engage in such behavior—the problem is that until they act or make clear threats, there is little legal basis for such action.
In regards to the established and known history of mental illness, the problem (as with the case of some mass shootings) is that before a person actually takes action, her background is very often the same as people who will never engage in gun violence. This is the general problem of prediction—one that is rather difficult in the case of suicide. There are also the ethical and legal problems associated with acting on mere predictions. This is based on the fact that gun ownership is a legal right in the United States as well as the usual moral arguments in favor of gun ownership as a moral right.
There do not seem to be many technological options to addressing the use of guns in suicide. After all, the requirement of a safety feature that prevents a gun from being fired at humans would never pass in the United States, even if such a feature was a technical possibility. A feature that prevented a weapon from firing at designated person (such as the owner) might have some appeal (and is a feature of some science fiction weapons)—but even if it were possible, a person could bypass this feature or get another weapon. The solution, obviously enough, must be a human one.