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When we talk about gun deaths in this country, we don’t talk much about suicide. This may seem strange, since about two-thirds of our annual more-than-36,000 deaths by firearms are suicides. Most of the rest are homicides, with a small number of accidents (Centers for Disease Control figures for 2015; the 2016 total was over 38,000). In other words, you are twice as likely to die by a gun in your own hand as someone else’s.

You would think that suicide by firearms would garner attention, since it kills 60 U.S. Americans a day, but I think that neither gun control advocates nor those who want to permit free access to guns want to bring up suicide. The gun-rights folks may believe that people wanting to kill themselves should have the right to choose a gun, but it’s not really the kind of argument that wins you a lot of fans. And the gun-control advocates, of which (in case you haven’t read my blog before) I am most definitely one, tend not to bring it up because of a widespread belief that someone bent on suicide will carry it out, and the means are not significant. In this, we could not be more mistaken.

I’ve said it myself, this “they’ll find another way” mistake, but I was corrected, after a sermon on suicide, by a local activist, to whom I am very grateful. It does indeed matter what means people choose for suicide. Those who choose highly fatal means–jumping off bridges or tall buildings, shooting themselves, or, all too often in the community where I serve, stepping in front of a speeding train–are much less likely to survive a suicide attempt. That much is obvious, in fact tautological. But what is also true is that, denied these means, they are much less likely to kill themselves, then or ever.

This is why, thanks to the California state legislature, we now have barriers making it harder to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, along with hotline phones and posted phone numbers. There is nothing stopping someone who is turned back by the barrier from seeking another way to end their life, but the psychology of suicide is such that many do not: not that night, not the next day, not ever.  Of course, to cut the suicide rate, we can and must do more than just making the final stage harder; we need to reduce poverty and injustice, reduce drug abuse, restore meaning, and provide ample mental health care. But that final stage also matters.

Restricting access to guns–by far the most common way U.S. Americans kill themselves–is thus a very effective way to save many of those lives. When Australia responded to its 1996 Port Arthur massacre by putting tough gun laws in place, the rate of firearms homicide dropped, and so did the rate of homicide overall. The rate of firearms suicide dropped, and so did the rate of suicide overall. With homicide, the reason is obvious to those of us not being paid by the NRA: it’s much harder to kill a lot of people fast with a knife or a truck. With suicide, though? Why don’t people denied a gun find another method? I don’t know. But as often as not, maybe more often than that, they don’t.

So let’s stop shying away from the topic of guns and suicide. When people want to know what good it will do suicidal people to restrict their access to guns, the answer is: it can save the larger part of sixty lives a day.

Sixty lives is a Las Vegas massacre, every day, week in, week out. If you worry about your child’s safety, reflect: they are probably twice as likely to die by suicide as by homicide. To keep them safe, tackle suicide. To tackle suicide, tackle the gun lobby.


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