Suicide prevention advocates join US gun policy debate

With thousands of people dying each year from self-inflicted gunshot wounds, suicides are a crucial part of the debate over American gun policy. Yet, compared to mass shootings and other homicides, these deaths tend not to attract as much attention.

More than 52% of the 45,222 gun deaths in the United States in 2020 were suicides – 24,292 – according to the latest available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Evidence suggests that if guns were less accessible, there would be fewer suicides. Firearms are used in only 6% of all suicide attempts, but are responsible for an abnormally high rate of successful attempts.

The recent mass shootings of 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and black shoppers at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, have prompted lawmakers pursue legislation on gun safety measures.

(Getty Pictures)

But suicide prevention advocates hope the topic won’t be left out of the conversation, because while research shows that homicides account for a significant share of gun-related deaths, suicide attempts with guns do. many more victims.

“What guns do is: they make suicide attempts deadly. It’s like having a gun in your house, you’ve tripled the risk of someone in the house dying by suicide,” said Dr. David Hemenway, Harvard professor and director of Harvard Injury Control. Research Center. told Yahoo News.

Hemenway co-directed a Harvard Public Health study in 2008 which found a higher suicide rate in states with more guns. He said most people who attempt suicide are acting on impulse or in moments of panic, and it’s important they don’t have guns nearby. For those whose acute feelings subside, he said about 90% don’t die by suicide.

This correlation between the availability of firearms and more deaths by suicide is a “powerful” link, according to the study. “Perhaps the real tragedy behind suicide deaths – around 30,000 a year, one for every 45 attempts – is that so many could be prevented. Research shows that survival or death from suicide attacks depends in large part of the immediate availability of highly lethal means, particularly firearms,” its summary reads.

One more recent study that Hemenway co-wrote in 2022 on who owned the guns used in a suicide said that “one of the ways to reduce gun suicide is to keep household guns away from someone at risk of suicide”.

“We’ve been promoting this idea of ​​’Friends don’t let friends drive drunk’ for more than a dozen years. Friends don’t let friends who are going through a rough patch keep their guns,” he said.

Yahoo News analyzed 2020 CDC data on the suicide death rate by state and compared it to the ranking of states with the strictest gun laws, via

The states with the lowest suicide rates also had the strictest gun laws. New York, New Jersey, California, Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois, Rhode Island, Hawaii and Connecticut ranked in the bottom 10 in suicide death rates and had the strictest laws on firearms.

As Congress debates whether to act on gun policy following mass shootings in Uvalde, Buffalo and elsewheresome advocates hope these measures can also stem the suicide crisis.

One of the advocates is Erin Dunkerly, an active member of the Brady Campaign’s Southern California Regional Leadership Councilwhose father committed suicide.

“My dad was a free spirit and he had very strong opinions at times,” Dunkerly said. “He was great fun hanging out with him, and he was my good friend, actually.”

She said her father died in 2006, after finding a gun in his friend’s bedroom drawer. He had previously attempted suicide but was able to be treated. His next attempt, however, was fatal.

“After being robbed at gunpoint, he again struggled with fear and trauma, and eventually found a gun in a friend’s house that was not stored safely. I know my dad would have had better days, but the permanent nature of a gunshot wound didn’t allow that to happen. Guns are so instantly lethal, compared to other means of suicide, which forces us all to be more responsible for lethal tools when we know people are going through a tough time.

Responsible gun ownership is an issue that could prompt new federal laws after many years of failed attempts in Congress, particularly after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.

On June 12, a group of 20 senators announced that they had reached an agreement on gun safety measures that they thought both sides could support, marking a major step forward in the debate.

The package, unveiled on Tuesday, allows states to implement so-called red flag laws that allow police to ask a court to temporarily remove a firearm from someone who may pose a danger to themselves or others. others. It also opens the door to more spending on mental health treatment and school safety.

“I think this is a wonderful start, and I’m grateful to the senators who have worked across party lines to reach compromises in the interest of getting things done and making our country safer.” , Dunkerly said.

“Among the proposals, federal funding for the Extreme Risk Protection Order [red flag] mental health laws and funding are particularly useful for suicide prevention.

As Congress considers gun legislation, mass shootings ravage communities across the United States. But while these shootings often make headlines, gun deaths are usually not made public.

At Robb Elementary School, bouquets of flowers and crosses bearing the names of the shooter's victims stand at the entrance to the school.

A memorial at Robb Elementary School after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 26 in Uvalde, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

In an open letterThe leading scientific and professional organization representing psychology, the American Psychological Association, has called on Congress to take action on the “public health crisis” of gun violence and pass legislation promoting safety.

“Science suggests that a history of abuse, not a mental health diagnosis, is the strongest predictor of future abuse. And the vast majority of gun violence deaths are not mass shootings, they are suicides,” said APA Scientific Director Dr. Mitch Prinstein.

The highest suicide rate is among middle-aged white men, Prinstein said, adding that suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people (ages 10 to 24) and is increasing at an alarming rate in communities. black.

In 2019, the Congressional Black Caucus launched an emergency task force on black youth suicide and mental health, to address the rising rate of suicide among black Americans, especially children.

“Promoting lethality means safety [i.e. safe storage] is fundamental to reducing our country’s suicide rates. APA Strongly Supports Increased Federal Funding for State’s Extreme Risk Protection Order [ERPO, aka red flag] laws,” Dr. Prinstein added.

“These laws can prevent suicides and give communities the ability to ask the courts to intervene and temporarily remove a firearm if the person poses a possible risk to themselves or others, without legal repercussions.”

Gun control advocacy groups rally with Democratic members of Congress, holding signs that read: Moms Demand Action, Gun Laws Save Lives, Stop Killing Us!  We need gun control NOW!  and Every Town for Gun Safety.

Gun control advocacy groups rally with Democratic members of Congress outside the US Capitol on May 26 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Dunkerly echoed those sentiments on laws supporting ERPOs and making guns safe: “There are a lot of guns in the United States: 120 guns for every 100 people. Therefore, laws that deal with weapons already in circulation are vital,” she said.

“Possible laws include requirements to store firearms safely, which protects everyone in a household, including visitors. Extreme risk protection orders are also essential. Friends and family are often in the best position to observe the warning signs that someone is struggling or having thoughts about harming themselves or others with their guns, so the ability for people to request the temporary removal of these firearms is crucial.

“The government can do a lot of things. The government should, for example, do more research and development on smart gunsHemenway added, describing firearms that can only be used and fired by a verified user. Similar to cellphone technology, weapons are unlocked with a fingerprint or PIN, but the technology is very new.

“Smart guns won’t save the gun owner, but may save children and their spouses who might use the gun,” he said.

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