By Tim Harvey
Harvey is pastor of the Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke County.
Stories of gun violence that make the news are nearly always of a particular type: they are typically crime/gang-related violence in ours or another city or mass-casualty killings like those at Virginia Tech, Tree of Life Synagogue, or a place of business. With each such shooting — and the media coverage and prayer vigils which follow — we are inclined to feel a little less safe than we did before.
What remains unstated in nearly all our conversations about guns and gun violence, however, is how often a gun is used by someone to commit suicide. In the United States, approximately two-thirds of all gun-related deaths are suicides. Half of all suicide attempts involve guns. Because suicide is such a personal event that happens away from the public’s view, these deaths are rarely reported by the news media. But being unaware of just how many people use a gun to attempt or commit suicide leaves the American public with a fundamentally flawed conversation about guns and gun-violence; we simply aren’t talking enough about the role guns play in the single largest category of gun-related deaths.
Every time a mass-casualty shooting happens, public discourse quickly reverts to the predictable slogans of “guns save lives” and “an armed society is a polite society,” as if more people having more guns is the only imaginable answer to every situation. But when it comes to suicide, guns do not make people safer. When someone is suicidal, the best possible scenario is for them to not have access to a gun.
Suicide attempts can typically be described by three words: impulsivity, ambivalence, and regret. Suicide is often attempted on the spur of the moment—typically within 30 minutes of the decision to make the attempt. Survivors often report feeling uncertain about whether taking their life was really necessary, and go on to regret the decision, never to make another attempt. This ambivalence towards suicide, even by those who attempt it, means that persons are not likely to use another means to take their life if their first choice is not available. Any barrier between a person contemplating suicide and a method of taking their life may very well save their life.
Because of the highly lethal nature of guns, ensuring that someone contemplating suicide does not have access to a gun is a life or death matter. That barrier might be a gun lock, or having guns stored in one location and bullets inaccessible in another. It might mean a person voluntarily relinquishing their firearms after consultation with a doctor or counselor. It might mean having an Extreme Risk Protective Order (“Red flag” law) issued to take someone’s gun away from them until the mental health crisis has passed.
In our highly partisan gun debate, any statement that suggests a gun restriction is bound to be met with an amount suspicion and derision. Do we have any capacity to acknowledge situations where guns do more harm than good? Mental health crises and suicide attempts are one such situation. There are others (such as domestic violence) that reasonable people who place a high value on life and safety can surely agree on.
How might we find space for conversations such as these?