Dorothy Paugh: Empowering Family Members to Remove Guns from Suicidal Loved Ones.

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After losing my father Edwin, 51 to suicide by gun in 1965 and my son Peter, 25 the same way in 2012, I have studied to find proven ways to reduce the number of Americans who shoot themselves— currently over 21,000 each year, overwhelmingly white males.  Family members are often the first to see signs their loved one is in crisis.  My Maryland state delegate has agreed to introduce a bill in 2018 to allow concerned family members to seek protective orders for law enforcement to temporarily remove their loved one’s guns.  Right now protective orders can only be sought against those who pose a danger to others.

suicide1The temporary removal of firearms from the home has saved many lives as Connecticut’s 17-year history issuing risk warrants to remove guns from the suicidal has demonstrated.  Indiana has had a similar law since 2006.  California, Washington and Oregon have recently enacted similar laws. But when I asked the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP)’s national advocacy office and the state chapter to support the introduction of an Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs) or similar measure in Maryland, they declined to take a position.

In 2016, AFSP partnered with the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) to reach gun sellers, buyers and owners with suicide prevention messages.  Gun violence prevention organizations agree that for those who live with guns, we need to communicate the increased risks of suicide and the simple steps that can reduce those risks.  Guns are extremely lethal, and only one in ten will survive a self-inflicted gunshot wound.   A loaded gun triples the risk of suicide for all who can get their hands on it.

It’s not just small children that parents need to protect, it’s also their older children.  Firearm safety training doesn’t work when the act is intentional.  Most adults know a toddler with a gun is in danger, but fewer can comprehend that their teen might in a rash act end their own life.  Science has shown that keeping guns and ammunition locked away from minors can prevent impulsive youth suicides since most minors who shoot themselves do so with a parent’s gun.  Since 2007, youth suicide by gun has risen 60%.  Each year, nearly 500 American youth under 18 shoot themselves.   Minors should not have access to keys to either the gun lock safe or to the ammunition locked up in a separate container.

I understand what AFSP is trying to do based on the science behind effective communications.  In order for their suicide prevention messages to get through to gun owners, they must be conveyed to that audience by a trusted messenger.  NSSF gets them “in the door.”  But what I don’t see is how supporting a law to temporarily remove guns from a suicidal person would jeopardize their new partnership. There is no question that laws that allow the temporary removal of guns from suicidal adults have prevented many suicides. It’s solid ground, not a slippery slope. Dead men have no rights.

Like AFSP and NSSF, gun safety organizations want gun owners and those that live with them to stay alive and get the help they need.  Surely we don’t have to agree on everything to work together towards the goal of saving the lives of people in crisis.  We should meet, shake hands and walk “Out of the Darkness” as far as we can together towards the common goal of reducing gun suicides, which amount to nearly two thirds of all gun deaths in this country.

 

A New Partnership To Reduce Gun Suicides Which Might Help.

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How many people die annually from gun violence?  If you’re a gun-control advocate, you’ll usually say that it’s somewhere around 31,000.  On the other hand, if you’re pro-gun, you’ll say it’s 11,000, give or take a few. The difference is whether or not suicide is considered a type of gun violence, because every year more than 20,000 Americans end their own lives by using a gun.  And if you want to meet your Maker before He wants to meet you, there’s nothing as efficient as pulling out the ol’ firearm, aiming it at yourself and – bam! Gun suicide is effective 90% of the time, no other life-ending behavior is half as good.

gun-suicide            According to the World Health Organization (WHO), violence is defined as someone who attempts to injure themselves or someone else.  So from a medical point of view, gun suicide is certainly a type of gun violence.  But the disagreement between pro-gun and anti-gun forces isn’t about medicine, it’s about politics, messaging and whether we need guns around or not.  Which is why until recently, the gun industry has preferred to keep discussions about gun suicide on the back burner, but that’s about to change.

Last year the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the industry’s lobbying and trade organization began talking to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) in an effort to find some common ground.  And what has emerged from these talks is a four-state, pilot program that will put suicide prevention messaging in gun shops and shooting ranges, a program that will then be widened with the goal of reducing gun suicides 20% nationally by 2025.  The project was officially kicked off with a press conference at this week’s SHOT show, and is publicly displayed on the websites of the AFSP and NSSF.

Predictably, the fringe elements in Gun-nut World were reluctant to jump on board unless this initiative and other similar programs would steer clear of any explicit or implicit attempt to use this activity to regulate guns.  Alan Gottleib, whose 2nd Amendment Foundation is really a cover for his very-profitable mail solicitation business, helped craft a bill before the Washington State legislature that establishes a ‘safe homes’ task force that will create messaging and training materials for ‘voluntary’ use by gun dealers. The Task Force membership includes Gottleib and a rep from the NRA. I don’t notice any representation from the groups in Washington State that pushed through an extension of background checks over the vigorous opposition of the NRA and the Gottleib gang.

This is the problem with the new suicide initiative announced by the NSSF and the AFSP, namely, that it’s a voluntary effort, which when it comes to educating about gun violence is where the gun industry always draws the line.  Gun-nut Nation’s phobia about government mandates is about as extreme as the phobia that some people have about immunizing their kids against disease.  And frankly, both phobias come from the same place; i.e., mistrust of government and a total misrepresentation of the facts. Fact: There is absolutely no connection between NICS-background checks and national registration of guns.  Fact: There is absolutely no connection between immunizations and autism, despite what Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. says.

If you walk into a gun shop today, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll see a ‘Don’t Lie For The Other Guy’ poster on the wall.  This is a long-standing partnership between the ATF and the NSSF to discourage straw sales at the counter-top, a project that is dear to the hearts of everyone in the GVP community as well.  In fact, displaying this message is mandatory, although ATF agents don’t check to see if the poster is hanging on the wall or not.

Of course we would like gun-suicide prevention programs to have some teeth. Of course we would like Gun-nut Nation to stop opposing sensible laws that would enable family members of at-risk individuals to remove their guns.  Of course, of course, of course.  But the NSSF-AFSP partnership is a good start.

Taking Guns Away From At-Risk Individuals Does Save Lives.

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When the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) announces that it is teaming with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) to reduce gun suicides, you know that something new and different is happening in the gun business.  Because until this moment, the gun industry has never shown the slightest interest in doing anything about the fact that 20,000+ Americans kill themselves each year by using guns, in fact, the party line has always been that guns and suicide have nothing to do with each other at all.

gun-suicideMeanwhile, close on the heels of this announcement comes a study (Dan Friedman has written a good summary in The Trace) by one of our most prolific and respected gun-violence researchers, Jeffrey Swanson, whose team evaluated the results of a Connecticut law which allows individuals and/or law enforcement to petition the courts for temporary removal of guns from someone who is believed would otherwise be at risk to harm himself or someone else.  The law, passed in 1999, has been copied in Indiana and California, and has always been a hot-button issue with Gun-nut Nation, which usually views any attempt to regulate guns for any reason to be an infringement on their beloved 2nd-Amendment rights.

Be that as it may, the fact is that suicide has been increasing of late, and while there has not been any causal link between service in Iraq and Afghanistan and suicide, military veterans of all ages are at greater risk for attempting a life-ending event than for the population as a whole. And everyone from the NRA to Obama to Trump tries to present themselves as the best friend that military vets ever had.

Which brings us back to Swanson’s study, which is the first attempt to look at the results of the Connecticut law in terms of whether or not temporary, court-ordered firearm seizures really do make a difference in preventing life-ending events with the use of a gun.  The CT law was actually passed not so much in response to suicide risk, but as a result of a terrible mass shooting incident where a pissed-off State Lottery employee stabbed and shot four of his bosses after he was denied a salary increase, then killed himself. But of the 762 cases of firearm seizures examined in this study, one-third were initiated out of concerns that the individual might try to harm someone else, while two-thirds of the seizure warrants were issued because it was believed that the affected individual was going to hurt himself.

Swanson’s team not only carefully reviewed the circumstances surrounding the issuance of these firearm-seizure warrants, but also attempted to follow the life paths of individuals who lost their guns.  It turns out that while the number of people who both lost their guns and still committed suicide was much greater than the normal suicide rate, not one of those suicides occurred during the 12 months that these individuals had their guns removed, and the number who later used guns was far below the usual rate for successful suicides using a gun. In other words, laws allowing a court to decide whether someone might harm themselves with a gun can, in fact, save lives.

I do have one major issue which is not intended as a criticism because it goes beyond the parameters of the article itself.  There were 762 firearm seizures ordered in Connecticut between 1999 and 2014.  But how many gun-seizure petitions were denied?  And how many people knew someone who was behaving in a way that made them appear to be a threat and yet decided that it wasn’t their ‘place’ to say anything or didn’t want to ‘get involved?’  There were people in San Bernardino who knew the two shooters were stockpiling weapons; there were people in South Carolina who heard an armed Dylann Roof make racist threats. Have we become so inured to violence that we need law to tell us that someone who exhibits great anger is someone who shouldn’t have access to a gun?

 

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