Stop Gun Suicide

We should do more to help at-risk people prevent their own suicides.

Here is one way.

Jonathan Jacoves was described by his father as a “happy-go-lucky, pro tennis player.” That was before Jonathan’s mental health deteriorated. At age twenty, he attempted suicide by overdosing on nonprescription medication and was diagnosed with “major depressive disorder” “with suicidal potential and ideation.” Before being discharged from the hospital, Jonathan entered into a contract with his parents through which he agreed not to commit suicide for four months. Jonathan told a psychiatric aide about the agreement and that “he hoped he meant it, but doubted it.” Eleven days after his release from the hospital, Jonathan purchased a rifle from a sporting goods store and, that same day, used it to commit suicide. Jonathan is not alone.

Gun suicide in the United States is an epidemic: over 20,000 cases each year (58 people a day), which is about half of all suicides. Many suicides are completed with a recently purchased gun: one study found that the probability of suicide is 57 times higher among recent gun purchasers. There are, however, reasons for hope. Most suicide attempts are impulsive. The vast majority of people who attempt suicide and survive go on to die of something other than suicide. But those who attempt suicide with a firearm almost never survive. As many as 90% of suicide attempts using firearms are fatal. Given these statistics, it should not be surprising that reducing access to firearms, even temporarily, has been shown to reduce suicide.

Reducing access to firearms is admittedly controversial. Debates over gun control generally involve a trade-off between saving lives and preserving the right to bear arms. The two sides are entrenched and common ground is vanishingly slim. As long as the focus is on mandatory restrictions of gun rights, the trench warfare seems likely to continue for decades to come. But a new paradigm is possible — -one that bridges the gap by simultaneously promoting safety and liberty. Allow people who fear suicide to voluntarily restrict their own gun purchase rights.

I propose empowering individuals to prevent their own future gun purchases by confidentially submitting their names to the federal background check system. Once in the system participants would not be able to purchase firearms from licensed dealers. Participants could have their names removed after a seven-day delay or, if they choose greater protection up front, only after a judicial hearing. This proposal is termed “Precommitment Against Suicide,” or “PAS.” PAS is designed to stop individuals from purchasing a firearm in an impulsive suicide attempt.

PAS could well have saved Jonathan’s life. His elevated risk of suicide was apparent to everyone, including himself. Jonathan did not want to commit suicide, and even pledged not to, but he did not trust his own willpower. Had Jonathan been able to put his name into the federal background check system upon his discharge from the hospital, he would not have been able to purchase the deadly rifle less than two weeks later. He could have used an alternative method to attempt suicide, to be sure, but probably not one as lethal as a firearm. Under the proposed approach, Jonathan would have had to take additional steps to revoke his PAS before being allowed to purchase a gun, by which time the urge to commit suicide might have passed.

Given time, most people who attempt suicide change their minds. PAS would simply give more people this chance.

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This post is based on two articles, in which references may be found:

Fredrick E. Vars, Self-Defense Against Gun Suicide, Boston College Law Review (forthcoming), at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2500291, and

Fredrick E. Vars & Angela Selvaggio, “Bind Me More Tightly Still”: Voluntary Restraint Against Gun Suicide (under submission), at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2641139.

Need help? Call 1 (800) 273–8255, the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline