Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.
Gun safety training doesn’t work when the act is intentional. Most gun deaths in this country are suicides, most suicides are male and most male suicides are by gun. As a mother who lost my 25-year-old son Peter to suicide by handgun in 2012, I know how horrific it is to lose a loved one this way.
It’s too late for my son, so I do everything I can to alert gun owners to the greatly increased risk of suicide for all who can get their hands on a gun. Even if we can’t save everyone, I believe it is within our power to prevent many suicides by keeping guns away from unsupervised youth and those we know to be in crisis.
About two-thirds of all firearm deaths in the U.S. are suicides — over 21,000 per year and rising. Females attempt to end their lives three times more often than males, but usually use less lethal means. Veterans are also more likely to attempt to kill themselves with a gun. This group has a higher rate of suicide than the general population.
Most gun owners realize a toddler with a gun is in danger, but many parents can be oblivious to the suicide risk easy access to a gun poses to their older children. Teens can sometimes make rash decisions when they are in the height of emotion. Research has shown that limiting access to the most lethal common method would reduce suicide deaths. Researchers found, “states with the highest rates of gun ownership are 3.7 times higher for men and 7.9 times higher for women, compared with states with the lowest gun ownership.” It’s a myth that suicidal people without a gun handy will just find another way to die. Instead, most will find a way to live. But even if they try again by another common method, their odds of surviving the attempt will be higher.
Individuals can also lobby their state and federal legislators to pass gun laws to make Americans safer. A study from Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Gun Policy and Research shows that handgun purchaser licensing laws significantly reduce suicides. Since Connecticut enacted such a law in 1995, firearm suicide rates have decreased by about 15 percent. Conversely, when Missouri repealed its handgun purchaser licensing law, the state saw a 16 percent increase in firearm suicide rates.
If it’s the gun owner who is in crisis, storage at home won’t work. I believe the most effective intervention is to temporarily remove firearms from the premises. All states currently issue protective orders also known as gun violence restraining orders or risk warrants) based on danger to others but only a few consider danger to self as a justification to temporarily remove guns from those at risk of suicide. Connecticut enacted such a law in 1999. Dr. Jeffrey Swanson and a team of researchers from Duke University School of Medicine estimate that up to 100 suicides have been prevented as a result.
Of gun owners, I ask three things. First, always store guns unloaded and in a safe with ammunition locked up elsewhere. Secondly, never give access to firearms to an unsupervised minor — do not share the key or combination with them. The odds of them needing a gun for protection are lower than the odds of them getting hurt by it.
Finally, I plead with troubled gun owners to temporarily give up their gun before taking their own lives. It is not “weak” or “unmanly” to need help and there is no shame in having a mental illness. Those who care for anyone who is struggling should do everything in their power to see that all guns are removed from the home. This is not a confiscation ploy, but a life-saving precaution. Once the crisis is over, you can get your gun back.
We cannot afford to keep losing the unique perspectives, talents and abilities of tens of thousands of Americans year in and year out to suicide by gun.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.
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