It happens around 60 times a day in America. It happened in Dorothy Paugh’s family twice during her lifetime. Her war veteran father and her son both killed themselves with the weapons they had in their homes.
“If you have a gun in your house, you just tripled your risk that someone will kill themselves with it, and that’s without a family history of suicide,” said Paugh, a Navy veteran and M-16 marksman from Bowie, Md., whose husband is also a hunter and active member of the National Rifle Association. She’s not anti-gun.
But she thinks there’s a way to prevent the nation’s spiking epidemic of gun suicides and, eventually, curb mass shootings. They’re called Extreme Risk Protection Orders — usually called “red flag” laws — and Paugh was instrumental in creating the one that went into effect Oct. 1 in Maryland.
Let’s start with the suicide part.
“It’s a myth that without a gun nearby, everyone bent on killing themselves will just do it anyhow, will find another way,” she said. “For a lot of people, suicidal thoughts are temporary. And if you can get guns away from them while they are having these thoughts, their chances for survival are better.”
Red flag laws — there are now 13 states that have them — allow a family member, roommate, beau, law enforcement officer or any type of medical professional to file a petition asking that a person’s home be temporarily cleared of firearms. It doesn’t require a mental-health diagnosis or an arrest. That’s usually the biggest hurdle. It’s why the man who killed 12 people and then himself in a California bar last week kept his guns — he didn’t have an official mental-health diagnosis that stopped him from buying and keeping guns.
California actually has a red flag law, but it is not as comprehensive as Maryland’s. Two years ago, the California legislature tried to expand the law to allow teachers, professors, principals, co-workers and employees to petition for a gun-removal order, but the effort failed.
Red flag laws are civil, not criminal actions, and they mean a judge evaluates a petition and recommends getting help.
“This law would’ve saved my father. I have no doubt about that,” Paugh said.
Paugh’s childhood ended, she believes, on a hot August day in 1965, when she was 9 years old and her father sent the rest of the family to the swimming pool.
He was despondent after losing his job, and he kept talking about killing himself so that he could provide for them postmortem, with his life insurance, Paugh said.
The family called their priest to come counsel him. They called his best friend, who came over and they talked. But no one took the gun.
“I’ll never forget when they called our name over the loudspeaker to pull us out of the pool that day. We were playing Marco Polo,” she said. Her dad had shot himself. And the family never, ever spoke of the suicide. They hardly even spoke about him again, it was so taboo.
When her son — 25, a college graduate with a job, a girlfriend, a new home and a good outward disposition — killed himself, Paugh was determined to do something about the deadly pattern in her family. Her son had bought a gun for protection right after he bought a house. On April 13, 2012 — quietly struggling with depression sparked by a job he didn’t like — he wrote notes of apology and goodbye, took the gun into the woods, called police and killed himself.
Paugh said she didn’t understand the depth of her son’s depression and believes that if the gun hadn’t been in his house, the flash of despair wouldn’t have ended with his death. Someone else in his life may have seen the red flags that could’ve had his gun removed.
Since the law kicked in at the start of October, 150 petitions for gun removal have been filed in Maryland, said Montgomery County Sheriff Darren Popkin, who was key in creating and implementing the law in the state.
He’s adamant about not calling it gun control. “It’s gun safety,” he said. And because it’s temporary — a judge will reconsider the removal after a couple of weeks — it’s not infringing on gun ownership, he said.
It’s certainly not perfect.In Glen Burnie last week, law enforcement officers were at a man’s home to collect his weapons after a judge approved a petition. He came to the door with a gun and brandished it, Popkin said, leading officers to shoot and kill him. But that’s a rare incident involving these types of laws.
“Really, anytime there is a law like this, it’s very hard to say what you’ve prevented. I can’t honestly say this law has saved this many lives,” Popkin said. They’ll never know how many of these folks would’ve actually killed themselves if the guns stayed in their homes. “But I do believe it’s having an impact.”
While suicide rates are on the rise in the United States — a 30 percent spike in the past two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — two of the first states to enact red flag laws have seen suicide rates drop, according to a study by the University of Indianapolis that looked at Connecticut and Indiana.
Let’s look at a few other statistics. Most people — 70 percent — who kill themselves are white, middle-aged men. Most gun suicides — 79 percent — are committed by white, middle-aged men. Most gun owners — 35 percent — are white men. Most mass shootings are committed by white men. See the pattern?
Here’s where the mass shooting part comes in.
Across the country and over the past couple of decades, homicide rates are going down. Suicides, however are spiking. And high-fatality mass shootings are rising, too.
In many of these mass attacks, the suicide of the shooter is the final, bloody act.
And that’s where the red flag laws — while saving the lives of men like Paugh’s dad and son — may also be another way to curb some of these horrific mass shootings.
It’s a start.
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