National Edition

More guns, more suicides? Protecting a population at risk

Published: Friday, March 29 2013 2:30 p.m. MDT

Several initiatives around the country are sidestepping the polarized legal debate about gun control and bringing together gun retailers and health professionals to prevent firearm suicides.

Kristin Murphy, Desert News

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It wasn't just about a background check.

"A woman came into the shop asking about buying a gun because of some emotional problems. I told her she didn't need a gun, she needed spiritual help. So I took her to my pastor. She never did come back for a gun," wrote one New Hampshire gun shop owner, explaining the impact of a set of suicide awareness materials delivered to the shop.

"There was a guy I wouldn't sell a gun to because he just didn't seem right. I later got a letter from his attorney thanking me for saving his life," another gun shop reported.

Most people who die by guns in the U.S. do so by their own hand. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, suicides made up three out of every five gun deaths in the U.S. in 2010, and firearm suicides made up more than half of all completed suicides.

The New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition, the group that distributed materials to gun shops across that state, is one of several initiatives around the country bringing together mental health professionals and the firearms community in an unlikely alliance. As Americans brace for a polarizing debate in Washington about gun control legislation, these partnerships are sidestepping the legal fight and looking for practical ways to work together to prevent some of the most tragic firearm casualties.

“We're all just wishing we could be doing it sooner,” says Regina Schneider, a National Alliance on Mental Illness volunteer and certified Mental Health First Aid instructor who is forming a coalition in Maryland. “The vast majority of firearms owners and dealers want nothing more than to prevent tragedies from happening.”

Means matter

Firearms top the list of lethal means of suicide in the U.S., with 85 percent of attempts ending in death. According to meansmatter.org, more suicides are committed with guns each year than every other method combined — and in numerous studies, gun ownership has been correlated with higher suicide rates.

Statistically, gun owners are not more depressed than their gun-free counterparts, nor do they attempt suicide any more often than the general population. But when it comes to suicide prevention, access to lethal means makes a big difference in whether the attempt will be completed.

To illustrate this difference: According to data from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, girls and women attempt suicide at a rate that triples their male counterparts. Yet there are four male suicides for every female suicide because boys and men tend to use more lethal means than females — primarily hanging and firearms.

"Most suicide methods also allow you to interrupt the method once you've started it; if you think better of it, you have a chance to stop ... and call 911,” says Cathy Barber, the director of the Means Matter campaign at the Harvard School of Public Health. “That's not an option with a gun."

“Suicidal crises for some people are very short-lived,” Barber says. “People might be suicidal for a long or short period, but that moment when you're actually ready to pull the trigger, that period is often pretty brief.”

Extremely brief, in fact. In a Center for Disease Control survey of those who made a near-lethal suicide attempt, survivors were asked how long it had been from suicidal impulse to attempt. For half, it had been an hour or less. For 24 percent, it was less than five minutes.

Barber says before she started studying suicide, she wouldn't have even thought to put five minutes or less as an option.

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