Guest Blog by Mikiko Imura

Posted on 11/14/2014

In his last post, Ryan introduced the “firearm suicide ratio”—the estimate of gun prevalence in a given geographical area, which is the number of all suicides committed by guns divided by the total number of suicides. He also pointed out that disproportionately more people living in honor states (i.e., the U.S. South and West) choose a gun over other methods of suicide even after taking into account heightened gun ownership rates in these areas. This greater tendency to use a gun to commit suicide appears unique to the White population, indicating a culture-of-honor effect. In fact, we found that approximately 3,673 more Whites committed suicide with a firearm each year in honor states than in non-honor states after statistically controlling for factors that might contribute to this difference (e.g., access to medical care, economics, temperature).

Thus, due to the influence of the culture of honor on the attractiveness of guns over other methods of suicide, the firearm suicide ratio might not accurately estimate gun prevalence in honor regions as well as it does in non-honor regions. This sounds like bad news for social scientists who want to use the firearm suicide ratio to estimate access to guns. However, if the inaccuracy of the firearm suicide ratio is a manifestation of honor-based beliefs and values—such that the culture of honor contaminates the firearm suicide ratio—then the amount of contamination might tell us how strong the culture of honor is in a given region. In other words, the contamination might serve as a statistical proxy for the influence of honor ideology in a given state.

We tested this idea by computing this contamination effect as the discrepancy between the firearm suicide ratio in each state and actual statewide gun ownership levels (i.e., self-reported firearm ownership rates). We called the difference between these two variables the “gun access gap.” Then, we examined if this gap predicted any of the well-known patterns seen in previous studies of honor culture. From past studies we knew that the culture of honor was linked with higher homicide rates and accidental death rates among Whites. If our gun access gap successfully predicted these social outcomes, this would be strong evidence for the gun access gap being a product of (and a proxy for) the culture of honor. We also thought that homicide rates and accidental death rates would be powerful outcomes to test our claim because they are so different from one another—the former having to do with how people handle interpersonal conflicts, and the latter being related to displays of bravery and recklessness (“Look, ya’ll—no helmet!").

When we tested this idea, we found that the White population’s gun access gap indeed predicted their homicide and accidental death rates. These were strong enough associations that even seemingly related factors (e.g., temperature, rurality, poverty) did not eliminate the links. 

Interestingly and importantly, the gun access gap predicted argument-related homicide rates even more strongly than total homicide rates—which is exactly what one would expect from prior research on the role of honor ideology in aggression and violence. 

So, what do these results tell us? Well, we believe that the firearm suicide ratio, which is, overall, a very good proxy for gun ownership rates within a given geographical region, is a less accurate estimate of gun ownership levels in honor-oriented regions of the U.S. Additionally, thanks to the “honor contamination” of the firearm suicide ratio, the gun access gap seems to work pretty well as a proxy for the influence of honor culture on a state. This is a remarkable finding, especially considering that the firearm suicide ratio and self-reported firearm ownership rates are correlated very highly. Thus, most social scientists would consider the difference between them as little more than statistical “noise.” However, careful examination of this statistical noise revealed that it was more than that—it was patterned and meaningful, springing from the honor norms and values that people in certain regions of the U.S. subscribe to.