I’ve been making it something of a point to highlight stories where potential mass shooters are stopped without the use of red flag laws. While I get the allure of them, the truth is that we already have all the laws we need to combat mass shootings. We don’t need a red flag law in order to thwart the next Parkland killer. We just need people to step up and do what’s right.
However, red flag laws are also being sold as a means to combat suicide.
Red-flag gun laws, which allow for the temporary removal of guns from individuals at high risk of harming themselves or others, have broad public backing but haven’t yet gained national traction. That could change now that bipartisan support is mounting in Congress for the Extreme Risk Protection Order and Violence Prevention Act. Introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and colleagues earlier this year, the legislation would not create a federal red-flag law but would instead give states incentives to adopt their own by providing grants for implementation. If approved, the bill will surely prevent deaths — including those from suicide — though its future is far from certain.
While mass shootings may have motivated Rubio to introduce the legislation, its potential benefits go far beyond their realm. Although such shootings are increasing in frequency and deadliness, they thankfully remain rare. In 2018, they claimed the lives of 373 people, with 313 deaths so far this year. In contrast, more than 47,000 Americans died from suicide, and 1.4 million attempted it in 2017, the last year for which complete data are available. Suicide is our country’s 10th leading cause of death, and its frequency is increasing. Americans are 2 1/2 times more likely to take their own lives than to be murdered.
Any death is tragic, but suicide is particularly so because it is often impulsive. Most people who attempt suicide and survive regret making the attempt, and 70% never try again. Remarkably, firearms are used in only 6% of suicide attempts but cause more than half of all suicide deaths. Due to their destructive power, approximately 85% of suicide attempts involving firearms end in death. Their involvement in suicide attempts is also rising.
Red-flag gun laws have been shown to reduce firearm suicide rates, with one suicide averted for every 10 to 20 gun removals.
However, are red flag laws really the best way to accomplish this?
I don’t think so.
You see, we have laws on the books that already allow people who are a threat to themselves or others to be committed involuntarily for evaluation. If they’re determined to be a threat to anyone, they can be held longer with a court’s approval.
A red flag law, on the other hand, removes only a single method of suicide from an individual. It doesn’t address these other methods at all.
The column argues, however, that these other methods aren’t as successful and those who try and fail often regret the attempt. That’s all fine and well, but is it true? Keep in mind that many of these people are being asked this while being treated for suicide. There’s a high chance many of them are simply telling researchers what they want to hear so they can eventually be discharged, preferably sooner.
There’s little reason to take these people at their word. While some are undoubtedly sincere, it’s impossible for an outsider to evaluate just how many are and how many are telling folks what they want to hear.
While most don’t try to commit suicide again, how much of that is because the treatment they’ve undergone as a result of the previous attempt is working and how much is because they don’t want to go down that road again? The truth is, we don’t know and can’t say. That’s sort of the problem.
Further, what the writer doesn’t note, however, is that a red flag law being on the books may push some away from seeking treatment. If I’m distraught and want to seek help, yet face the possibility that my guns may be taken away, I might reevaluate my desire to seek that much-needed help. That’s certainly going to be true of others as well.
Yet involuntary confinement has been on the books for quite some time, and while it is misused on occasion, it’s still a useful tool. Further, it shields a patient from all potential methods of suicide, not just firearms, and as such is much more likely to save lives.
The writer notes that some leave the hospital and convince their families they’re good to go when they’re not, and that is indeed tragic. However, before I tolerate interfering with a human being’s natural right to keep and bear arms, I want more than anecdotes. After all, are these numbers greater or less than those whose lives would be lost to those who opted for a different method of suicide following a red flag seizure? What are those numbers on a per capita basis?
Without that comparison, their claim that red flag laws are the best way to prevent suicides is completely meaningless.
I won’t say I’d support them if the numbers backed up what the proponents claim, but at least then we’d see something with actual data rather than a statistical shell-game hoping to trip up the unwary.