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Byrd: Suicide and gun control

BY MATTHEW BYRD | SEPTEMBER 12, 2013 5:00 AM

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The Johnson County Board of Supervisors has decided to raise awareness of the devastating public-health problem of suicide by declaring this week to be “National Suicide Prevention Week in Johnson County.”

This is an honorable step by the supervisors because suicide — which doesn’t get talked about as much as it should — is a widespread problem not only in Iowa, where it is the second leading cause of death for young people and the 12th leading cause statewide, but also nationally, where it accounts for nearly 40,000 deaths per year.

Suicide not only results in the death of too many of our fellow citizens, it also incurs an incalculable cost in the pain and suffering inflicted on the friends and loved ones of the deceased who are forced to pick up the pieces from a shattered life.

Buried in the statement the supervisors released proclaiming Suicide Prevention is a small statement that deserves some clarification. The supervisors stated that Johnson County should “promote efforts to reduce access to lethal means and methods of self-harm.” When you translate this statement from politick speak to English, it means one thing and one thing only: gun control.

When people (at their own peril) enter the arena that is the national debate on guns and gun control, the focus tends to be on homicides. However, the statistics suggest that this approach is wrong-headed. Every year, around 32,000 people are killed by guns in the United States; of those deaths, approximately 19,000 are suicides, dwarfing the number of homicides, which hovers around 11,000. That doesn’t mean firearm homicides aren’t a problem. It just means that in the grand scheme of gun policy, suicide is the more pressing issue.

So, firearm suicides are a major problem in the United States. What do we do about it? Simple. Reduce the availability of guns. Guns offer a relatively low barrier to suicide. It’s hard to cut yourself. It’s hard to hang yourself. It’s hard to jump off a bridge or building. It’s hard to get the dosage right when you try to overdose on pills. It’s deadly simple to pull a trigger.

This isn’t an anecdotal argument, either. Scientific studies at Harvard have shown that states with stricter gun-control laws (in particular, long purchasing waiting periods and extensive background checks) have lower rates of suicide than states with very weak gun-control laws. Fewer guns. Fewer suicides. It’s a pretty straightforward formula. 

Gun-control laws also have positive long-term effects on people at risks for suicide. Of the people who survive a suicide attempt — an attempt they are much more likely to survive without a gun — only 10 percent will eventually succeed in a subsequent suicide attempt. People who survive a suicide attempt are also more likely to receive some sort of mental-health treatment, which reduces the risk for subsequent suicide attempts.

Clearly, guns are not the only factor behind suicide. Mental illness and the response to personal traumas are the driving factor behind this country’s suicide epidemic. However, if our goal as a society is, broadly, to reduce the pain and suffering of our fellow humans and, more specifically, to reduce the number of people who fall victim to suicide, than reducing access to firearms is a proposition that requires no hesitation.


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