Why Changing Gun Laws Must be Part of America’s Conversation on Suicide

For suicide survivors, it’s the what-ifs that haunt. What if he’d gotten the help he needed? What if someone was with her that night? For my family, it’s: What if dad knew our love for him was big enough to support him as his health declined?

Too many Americans were pierced in a familiar way by the deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. In 2016, the most recent year for which we have data, nearly 45,000 Americans took their own lives — this means that far too many of us know exactly what it feels like to find out that your loved one has died by suicide.

My dad was a Vietnam vet, a lifelong farmer, a devoted husband of 50 years, father of 3 and grandfather of 4. His health was failing, but his love for all of us was a constant force. He was the ultimate caregiver of others. In my fifteen years at Mothers Against Drunk Driving, where I eventually became CEO, I had comforted hundreds of grieving families. Still, I was overwhelmed by my own grief in the months that followed my dad’s death. I felt helpless and sometimes worried that I had failed to help him.

Soon, I began to hear from other suicide survivors, and particularly survivors of gun suicides like me. I learned from this new community that most gun deaths in America are gun suicides. And that most people who attempt suicide and survive do not try again. But guns are uniquely lethal. Those who attempt suicide with a gun rarely get a second chance at life.

According to a new CDC report, suicide rates have increased in nearly every state over the past two decades — across gender lines, all racial and ethnic groups and in cities and rural areas alike. In half the states, rates have increased by more than 30 percent.

And half of all suicide deaths in the U.S. are carried out with a gun.

My dad’s death started me on the path toward moving from Texas to D.C. to work for Everytown for Gun Safety. I wanted to erase the feeling of helplessness that overwhelmed me after my dad’s gun suicide. It might be too late for my dad, but I knew that there was more I could do to empower families to speak up when they fear for a loved one’s life.

It isn’t always possible to tell that a loved one might be at risk for suicide. Too often, depression is an invisible crisis. But when families are aware and worried, there are some common-sense steps states are already taking to save lives. When it comes to gun suicides, I am particularly hopeful because new Red Flag Laws have been passed in five states this year, bringing the total to nine states that have these provisions. These laws allow families or law enforcement to ask a court to temporarily restrict someone’s access to firearms if they are a danger to themselves or others.

It’s often after mass shootings, like the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that we talk about Red Flag Laws. In that case, the shooter had exhibited clear warning signs of being a danger to others, but there was nothing the police could do to prevent him from owning firearms. And while Red Flag Laws may prove to be a strong tool in preventing mass shootings, they are already one of the strongest tools we have to prevent gun suicides.

In fact, a new study by researchers from the University of Indiana found that Red Flag Laws decreased the firearm suicide rate by eight percent in Indiana in the first decade the law was in effect and 14 percent in Connecticut after that state upped its enforcement of the law following the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.

If you live in a state that has a Red Flag Law on the books, know that this is a tool available for you to use. If your state does not yet have a Red Flag Law, consider joining your local chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and work with them to help save lives.

Every day, 96 Americans are shot and killed. Fifty-nine of those gun deaths are suicides. Every country has a suicide problem, but only in America do we give suicidal people easy access to firearms. We should do everything we can to prevent suicides — from mental health services to limiting access to lethal means like guns — and one of the easiest steps we can take is passing Red Flag Laws.

If you or someone you know are suffering, consider calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255.