Jac VerSteeg: Keep gun owners from killing themselves

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In America guns now kill as many people as cars. The facts behind this trend offer an opportunity for cooperation between gun rights factions and gun safety factions.

The headline – guns kill as many as cars – at first looks like a slam dunk condemnation of rising gun violence. That’s not the case. The underlying cause is not a spike in gun homicides. Rather, it is a steady reduction in the number of motor vehicle deaths. (By the way, in Florida vehicular fatalities still outnumber gun deaths.)

There’s another wrinkle in the national stats. Of the 30,000 people who die from gun violence every year, about 20,000 are suicides. Therein lies the opportunity for agreement between pro-gun and anti-gun factions. Both should want to reduce suicide rates by providing resources for mental health.

Gun rights advocates have conceded – at least, some have – that guns should be kept out of the hands of the mentally ill. When there is an attack such as the murders committed at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, gun rights forces are eager to blame the shooter’s mental illness rather than the firearms used to kill, in this case, three people including a police officer.

But for every high-profile case like that, there are thousands of gun deaths that barely are noticed except by the family and friends of the victims. I’m talking, of course, about those 20,000 suicides by gun every year.

Suicide is an extreme symptom of mental illness. One reason suicide is so little noted is that it is clouded in stigma and shame. News media traditionally have not reported on lone suicides out of consideration for the surviving friends and family members. Suicide has been seen as a private matter.

But not always. As the Sun Sentinel reported, 56-year-old Clive A. Muir shot himself to death on New Year’s Day. But not before he also shot two assistant managers, one fatally, who worked at the Boston Market in Tamarac where Muir had worked before being fired last fall.

It is impossible to know whether mental health intervention could have prevented Muir’s attacks and suicide. The same is true of every specific suicide. But it is a reasonable assumption that intervention by mental health professionals can and does prevent some suicides.

Further, the same intervention that helps individuals cope with the loss of their jobs or other life crises reasonably can be assumed to prevent, in some cases, the kind of murder-suicide tragedies that Muir inflicted on himself and his victims.

I know from personal experience – having lost close family members to murder-suicide involving gun violence – that mental health intervention will not work in every case. Finding out what kind of intervention does work to prevent suicide should be a major subject of research.

But it isn’t. Why? In part because Congress since 1996 has blocked funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that specifically would have paid for research into the effects of gun violence on Americans’ health – including the role that guns play in suicide.

The Washington Post has reported that the CDC has balked at getting involved in such research even after President Barack Obama issued an executive order authorizing some gun-violence research after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

The CDC – and other sources of research funding – simply are afraid of retaliation from Congress and gun rights groups if they pay for any studies that could be interpreted as favoring gun control.

That fear is preventing robust research that could pinpoint the best way for clinical psychologists and other mental health professionals to, in layman’s terms, talk people out of committing suicide.

The most obvious irony is that preventing research into suicide prevention results in lethal harm to gun owners themselves. When about 20,000 people kill themselves with guns every year, roughly 20,000 gun owners are proving that guns often are more dangerous to their owners than they are to any outside threats.

Gun rights advocates, as well as gun control advocates, should be able to agree that improving access to mental health services is a goal that would prevent gun deaths. Further, they should be able to agree that research to improve the mental health services actually delivered would prevent gun deaths.

Not agreeing is, well, suicide.

• • •

Jac Wilder VerSteeg is a columnist for The South Florida Sun Sentinel, former deputy editorial page editor for The Palm Beach Post and former editor of Context Florida.

For more state and national commentary visit Context Florida.

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