by Dorothy Paugh
The Gallup organization recently issued a poll that found that six in ten Americans now believe a gun in the home makes its occupants safer, double the number who held that belief in 2000. Having lost two family members to suicide by gun, I am no longer blissfully ignorant of the dangers of gun ownership. In order to strike a balance between benefits and risks and make informed decisions about whether to own or how to store a gun, individuals need to know all the risks involved and what steps can reduce those risks.
The fear of crime in the form of a stranger is the real bogeyman, because it dupes many into harboring in their homes the greater danger--the most lethal means--under the guise of protecting themselves and their loved ones. Many studies prove that having a gun handy at least triples the risk of suicide for ALL who live in a home with a gun.
Each year in the US, firearms are used in nearly 20,000 suicides, just over half of all suicides. By comparison, roughly 11,000 Americans are murdered with guns annually. States with the highest rates of gun ownership have almost four times the rate of suicide by gun compared to states with the lowest rates of gun ownership with no corresponding increase in the use of other lethal methods in the low gun ownership states.
Black urban communities see the scourge of gun violence every day and bear the brunt of gun homicides. Young black males are most often shooting each other. White males with guns in their homes need to be most afraid of themselves and for their own family members. A white male is five times more likely to be shot by his own hand than he is to be shot by someone else. The white suicide rate is three times that of blacks. Hispanics and Asians have half the rate of suicide of the general population. Only Native Americans and Alaskan Natives have higher suicide rates than white males in the US.
Four out of five suicides are males. Females attempt suicide three times more often than males, but because they usually use much less lethal means (pills and cutting), many more survive. Ninety percent of those who survive an attempt do not go on to die by suicide, but only 15% survive a self-inflicted gunshot. Accurate information empowers individuals, communities, nonprofits and governments to focus scarce resources how and where they can do the most good.
It is not always easy to predict who might suddenly end their life. It’s often the ones no one ever imagined could do such a thing. Especially with impulsive youth, reaching for a relative's unsecured weapon may be the first indication of a problem. Even if we recognize signs of distress, getting troubled individuals into mental health treatment can be difficult.
Reducing access to the most lethal means within our homes is relatively simple, easy and effective. The scientific evidence is overwhelming that the men, women and children who live in a home with a gun are many times more likely to die by gunshot. But where guns are not present in the home or are stored unloaded in a safe with ammunition locked up in a different location, the total number of suicides (all methods) is dramatically lower.
Those left behind by the suicide of a loved one are catapulted into a sea of sorrow, reeling from the ultimate rejection, confounded by unanswerable questions, and wracked by a consuming guilt. We agonize over what we might have said or done differently to change the outcome for our lost loved one. We are the walking wounded, at increased risk of following suit. We can greatly lessen the temptation by keeping guns out of reach.
While we may not be able to "suicide proof" every environment nor save everyone, by taking simple precautions in our own homes, we can save a significant number of irreplaceable human beings. It’s a given that many of us will experience moments of intense pain and profound despair. We also know that making it even a little harder for distraught and ambivalent persons to end their lives often allows precious time for their emotions to calm and mind to clear. Most suicidal individuals thwarted in the attempt do not just "find another way" to die, they find a way to live.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dorothy Paugh, a retired naval officer living in the Washington, DC area who lost her father in 1965 and her son in 2012 to suicide by gun.