Guns don’t kill people, and backhoes don’t dig holes in the ground

On Wednesday, my post about the effect on suicides from widespread personal gun ownership in the United States got a fair bit of attention.

The title distracted a lot of readers from the content of the article, which isn’t surprising. Even for those who read it, there were a few common objections, which are collected here to be answered in more depth.

1. ARGUMENT: ‘The U.S. military doesn’t have a suicide problem. It’s actually lower than the general population when you consider most service members are 18 to 30 years old and male.’

That may be the case. It’s just really, really tough to demonstrate.

The U.S. military is in no way a representative sample of the civilian population. It’s a volunteer force, so people are picking themselves for it, and then the military makes sure to screen out those who have a history of criminal behavior, mental illness, or are obviously unqualified for other reasons.

Even if it is possible to properly weight the gender, ethnic, age, education, and U.S. region of origin, it’s still not going to be something you can compare in straight lines.

Consequentially, that wasn’t something the article tried to look at.

It is certainly true that military suicides aren’t dramatically increasing in number or rate, and the article didn’t do a sufficient job ever making that clear.

U.S. military suicides and rate

As a side note, the most dangerous time to be in the U.S. military in the past 35 years was 1980, when accidental deaths killed 72 service members per 100,000.

2. ARGUMENT: ‘What do you expect after what we put members of the armed forces through? Of course they’ll come home with PTSD. The real focus needs to be treating that.’

That’s definitely something that needs to be kept in mind, but it’s also outside of the scope of that article. It’s only counting active-duty service members, of whom only about half were ever deployed and much less than that involved in combat.

For 2010:

 Thirty decedents (10.68%) had known direct combat experiences, including participating in combat that resulted in injuries (n = 19, 6.76%), sustaining injuries (n = 6, 2.14%), witnessing killing (n = 18, 6.41%), seeing dead bodies (n =14, 4.98%) and killing others (n = 11, 3.91%

Of the non-fatal attempts, 13.90 percent had direct combat experience. For 2011 it was 15.33 percent of completions and 16.90 percent of attempts; for 2012, 13.5 and 12.0.

From Department of Defense Suicide Event Report for the calendar 2010 year
From Department of Defense Suicide Event Report for the calendar 2010 year

And if it the effect of that stress and bad policy doesn’t come out until later, when service members have left the military, it doesn’t seem to show up as a difference between veterans and the general population.

Suicide Data Report, 2012 from Department of Veterans Affairs, page 17
Suicide Data Report, 2012 from Department of Veterans Affairs, page 17

That actually matches fairly closely with the 24 percent of men overall who are veterans. That Veterans Affairs study cuts off that portion  before the 2010-2012 period, but there’s no signs of suicide being or growing into a worse problem for veterans as they age more than the general population.

3. ARGUMENT: ‘Taking away one method isn’t going to solve anything. You can’t take away or ban all of the things a depressed person can use to try to commit suicide.’

Right, but you can make it harder for a person to use the most efficiently fatal tool in the hopes they’ll use a less efficient one.

By analogy, people can dig holes in the ground with a shovel or a spoon or their bare hands. But if you didn’t want people irrationally digging holes in the ground during fits of depression, you’d first want to restrict their access to backhoes.  No one should blame a machine for intent, but we do properly credit them with efficacy. A backhoe doesn’t dig holes on its own, but it is really good at digging holes in the ground, and that’s really all it does.

Sharp and blunt objects are used as tools for every sort of thing. They’re practically useful. Best of all, if used as the method of suicide, there’s a 98 percent chance to expect the person will survive and be able to get treatment.

It’s not without precedence to focus solely on firearms as a means of reducing suicide. In fact, for the military specifically, the Israeli and Swiss achieved lower rates by restricting permissions to take service weapons home. Some of that shifts to other methods, but again, other methods aren’t as convenient, instantaneous, and deadly.


The news peg was the suicides of the troops now being more deadly than hostile combat. That’s a return to the norm in times of peace. But the real point was that the danger of self harm comes not from anything in the military or military population: it comes from the law of the land.

If it were more difficult to possess a firearm, and service members with the exact same stresses and problems were made to use other methods at the exact same total attempt levels, there would be less fatal ones. This is entirely by virtue of the better survivability of non-firearm methods.

Lower numbers of active duty service members attempt suicide in Europe/Asia, but they are four times less likely to die from suicide if they’re stationed away from the United States. The ratio of methods makes clear why.

U.S. military active duty self-harm  methods for United States
Data source: Medical Surveillance Monthly Report, Volume 21 No. 10 (October 2014)
U.S. military active duty self-harm  methods for Europe/Asia
Medical Surveillance Monthly Report, Volume 21 No. 10 (October 2014)

If you look at the suicide completions and attempts for the rest of the population by method, the same thing shows up.

In 2011, firearms were the method of death for 31,649 people; not quite 20,000 of them were suicides. The Second Amendment, or the interpretation of it that wants firearms to be easy to possess and bring literally anywhere, is killing us.

You can’t randomly select a portion of the U.S. population and make them live overseas under different gun laws, then see if they’re less likely to complete suicides than a control group at home following the same rules and regulations of daily life.

But that is what we do with members of the U.S. military, and it saves lives.

4 thoughts on “Guns don’t kill people, and backhoes don’t dig holes in the ground”

  1. This is a very well written post. I’ve only recently begun seriously reading and writing on gun control and this is the type of post I aspire to write. I wonder if anyone has analyzed the effectiveness of this sort of writing, its ability to sway public opinion etc.


  2. I recently read that American veterans are killing themselves at the rate of 22 per day. The method wasn’t reported, but I’d have to think a large number were due to gunshot.


  3. ….. VA prescribing cocktails of drugs with effects they don’t fully understand is also a major contributor….. the “help” that is there for vets with ptsd isn’t really help… and attacking the second ammendment will not right this wrong.


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