Posted on 7/27/2014

Have you ever wondered just how many guns there are in America? Or, relatedly, have you ever wondered exactly how many of your closest neighbors are packing? Does that annoying guy with the mean dog have a .45 in his truck? And what about the lady who stares out of her bedroom window all the time with the drink in her hand? Is she loaded for bear, in addition to just being, well, loaded?

These are reasonable questions. Unfortunately, the guns-rights lobby has made sure that you and I cannot find the answers to such questions. There is no federal registry of guns in the U.S., and even if there were, we would have little reason to trust it. Just wander over to the nearest gun show (come to Oklahoma almost any weekend if you want to visit one) and watch the weapons change hands willy-nilly, with nary a background check or a howdy-do. A wink and a nod and a wad of cash are all you need, really. According to some, the right to carry a gun is a “God given, Constitutionally protected right,” after all (see my blog post from February 3, 2014, to learn where this quote comes from).

A few nationally representative surveys can give us a general idea of how many people profess to have a gun in their home. According to one such survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, about 32% of Americans surveyed in 2001 said they had at least one gun at home. If we want more precise, local estimates, however, things get much trickier, especially if we want our estimates from the current decade.

A couple of years ago, I discovered that a pair of social scientists at Harvard Medical School had come up with an extremely clever way to estimate the relative prevalence of guns. Their approach doesn’t tell us the exact number of guns in a given area, such as a state or county, but it can estimate where guns are likely to be more or less available. Their method involved using the fact that when people commit suicide, guns are frequently the method of choice, and if guns are more readily available, then the percentage of all suicides that are committed with guns (the “firearm suicide ratio”) will tend to be higher than if guns are rare commodities. When it’s harder to get a gun, people tend to use other means, rather than go to a lot of trouble. They might take a bunch of sleeping pills, for instance, or perhaps find a very tall bridge. Thus, these researchers argued, the “firearm suicide ratio” provides us with an estimate of the relative prevalence of guns in different geographical areas. This estimate, incidentally, correlates very highly with other estimates of gun ownership, such as those rare, representative surveys I mentioned already. The benefit of this method, though, is that it can be computed anywhere and anytime we have data on suicide rates and methods, which it turns out we have in great detail in the U.S.

I must confess, I was very excited to discover these researchers and their clever method, especially because when I first learned of it, I was in need of a way of coming up with such estimates for a study of state-by-state risks of school violence. But then it occurred to me—might these estimates be biased by cultural differences in people’s preferences for the use of guns for committing suicide? Might guns be the preferred method for committing suicide in some parts of the country more so than in other parts?

To date, there is very little research on why some people choose some methods and other people choose different methods to commit suicide. When people take their own lives, the most important fact is not really how they did so. But if people in honor cultures feel the need to assert their strength and toughness in life, might this same need manifest itself in how people in honor cultures choose to commit suicide? That might seem like a strange idea. Why would people need to “assert” anything when ending their life? If you think about it, though, how a person chooses to die might be one of the only choices left that a person feels he or she can make, and so that choice could readily take on a great deal of personal significance. If a choice is personally significant, then it’s quite plausible that important cultural ideals might influence that choice.

So, my collaborators and I decided to take a look at the data to see if people living in honor states in the U.S. South and West might be more likely to use guns to commit suicide compared to people in the North. Importantly, we controlled for the self-reported prevalence of guns in each state (using those survey data from the CDC). What we found was that people in honor states were, indeed, statistically more likely to choose a gun over other methods when committing suicide, compared to people living in non-honor states, above and beyond the simple fact that more people own guns in honor states than they do in non-honor states. But, as with other regional differences associated with honor ideology in the U.S. (e.g., homicide, risk-taking), this pattern only held among Whites. Among non-Whites, there was not a strong difference between those living in honor states and those living in non-honor states.

Culture matters. It matters for just about everything—what we eat, how we work and play, how we think about ourselves and other people, how we feel about life ... and, it seems, how we go about ending our lives.

The story does not end there, though. Check out my next blog post to read about what we were able to do with our evidence of this tragic love affair that honor-oriented people have with firearms.