A new study, coauthored by a libertarian-aligned economist, has found strong evidence that the spread of gun ownership around the United States is a threat to public health. Guns, this research suggests, really do cause people to kill themselves when they wouldn’t otherwise.
Alex Tabarrok, one of the study’s two authors, isn’t anyone’s idea of a progressive. Tabarrok teaches at George Mason University, a famously libertarian-inclined economics department. He’s a fellow at the libertarian Mercatus Institute and one of the lead authors of Marginal Revolution, one of the web’s most famous libertarian-inclined blogs.
Tabarrok and his coauthor, Justin Briggs, put together a bunch of data on gun ownership and suicide. After controlling for a series of potentially confounding factors, Tabarrok and Briggs ran a series of regressions to establish any links between guns and suicides.
But wouldn’t people who don’t have guns just kill themselves in some other way? No, according to Tabarrok and Briggs. “The [gun-suicide remains significant,” they report, “despite also finding significant evidence that gun ownership causes substitution towards gun-suicide rather than other methods of suicide.” Tabarrok breaks this down further: “when gun ownership decreases we see a big decrease in gun-suicide and a substantial but less than fully compensating increase in non-gun suicide.” So, in the end, there’s “a net decrease in the number of suicides.”
As Tabarrok and (also libertarian) Megan McArdle note, this is entirely consistent with what we know about suicide. Far from being a well-thought out plan, suicide is often an impulsive decision rather than a rational choice to end one’s life. In one study McArdle takes a look at, researchers followed up with group of people who were prevented from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. They found that the majority didn’t attempt suicide again — rather, they made one terrible decision and thankfully survived.
Guns are designed to kill people. That makes it easier for people who own them to succeed in killing themselves, even if, like the Golden Gate jumpers, it turns out they don’t really want to die. That’s the underlying logic behind Tabarrok and Briggs’ grisly finding.