With suicides, gun control is a double-edged sword

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Most so-called gun deaths in the United States are suicides. That means that if we can bring down the total number of suicides, it brings down the number of fatalities that are used to justify gun control.

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And let’s be real, that’s not the major concern in all of this. The taking of one’s own life is a terrible tragedy and usually represents a lot having gone wrong somewhere in the past, and not in the way most of the survivors tend to think. It’s not individuals who failed the deceased most of the time.

But for as long as there are people who use a gun to commit suicide there will be people who seek to control those guns.

Yet many feel gun rights advocates should be on the front lines of the issue, working with other groups on the issue.

Gun suicides reached an all-time high in 2022, and experts say working with gun owners, gun shop owners and firearm safety instructors to encourage the safe storage of weapons may be the key to decreasing rates of suicide.

States with the strongest gun storage laws lowered the rate of gun suicide among young people aged 10-24 between 1999 and 2022, while states with no secure storage laws saw the rate increase by 36% during that same time period, according to new data published last week by the Everytown Gun Safety Support Fund.

This mimics many previous studies that show firearm availability is a risk factor for suicide — because gun owners have access to lethal means, not because gun owners have more suicide attempts or mental health issues than non-owners, researchers have found.

Every 11 minutes, someone died by suicide with a firearm last year, according to 2022 provisional data from the CDC.

“The way to keep the people in your life safe is to make sure that, if they’re having mental health issues in general, that those guns are secured,” Deborah Azrael, Ph.D., and Director of Research of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center tells The Messenger. “Go the extra route of taking that gun and putting it someplace where they can’t access it in a moment of rage or despair or anguish or pain.”

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Now, this isn’t wrong. I actually agree that giving your guns to another person if you’re having a rough time or at least letting a friend take them from you is a way to help. Sure, you can go and buy another gun, but that’s a step that might well be enough.

The problem, however, is that in some states, this is arguably illegal.

Let’s say I’m in California and I’m having a bad time and think ending it sounds like a plan, but I’m still not there yet, so I give my guns to my buddy to hold onto.

Congratulations, I just completed an illegal transfer of firearms under state law.

This is the most common sense thing you can do if you’re having a mental health crisis and it’s illegal in a number of states. What’s more, a lot of people want to make it illegal nationwide.

Luckily, at least some of the people involved in this effort, who want us to work toward suicide prevention, really don’t want to pass more gun control laws.

“It’s very satisfying to work with people from a variety of political perspectives and to say, ‘Well, let’s really look at suicide in the state, and does gun access make a difference, and how would we test that?’” [Means Matter director Cathy] Barber tells The Messenger.

Barber and her team surveyed about a thousand firearm instructors through the public safety department in Utah, and got “very positive” responses when they asked about teaching suicide prevention modules.

“I think it’s so important that people who care about gun rights, and who like guns, get involved in this work. Because they’re the perfect messengers,” Barber has said in the past.

For example, Clark Aposhian, chair of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, a powerful gun lobby in the state, worked with Barber on a PSA to promote suicide prevention.

“For so long, gun owners have been left out of the suicide conversation,” Aposhian, who was initially skeptical of the program, told the Oregonian. But once he looked at the data, and realized Barber wasn’t trying to pass more strict gun laws, he was on board.

Barber does not think more legislation is always effective. “A lot of people who are more inclined towards legislation will say, ‘Oh, we’ve got to pass laws, got to pass laws’. And it’s like, well, no. One of the things we learned was that most of the 92% of the people in Utah who killed themselves with a gun, they could have passed a background check on the date of their death,” she says.

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Exactly.

And trying to take a legislative approach to suicide, at least in the form of gun control, pushes away the one group of people who would probably be happy to help: gun rights advocates.

We don’t want to see more of our community die any more than any other community would. We don’t want to see our friends and loved ones kill themselves. A lot of us want to work to reduce suicides and yes, we’d be happy to work with a group like Barber’s so long as we know we’re not going to have them stab us in the back by pushing for gun control.

And that’s why gun control really is a double-edged sword when it comes to suicide prevention. Not only does it make it untenable for gun rights advocates to support it but it actively works against at least some of the most effective steps people can take.

I’ve already mentioned universal background checks, but another way it screws things up is red flag laws. Someone who is depressed and may be thinking about suicide might not want to get help because therapists in many states can request red flag orders on their patients.

That keeps them from getting help.

Barber’s approach is smart and it’s more of what we need. What we don’t need are the restrictions that make it difficult to impossible to help.

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