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.
The 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.