Jennifer Stuber is an associate professor of public policy at the University of Washington, where she co-founded the organization Forefront: Innovations in Suicide Prevention.
It wasn’t the hardest phone call I’ve ever made, but it was certainly awkward. I was cold-calling the National Rifle Association. Because the NRA is well-known for offering gun safety training, I wanted to know whether the organization had ideas on how to reduce the number of firearm suicides. Half of all suicides in the United States are by firearm, and roughly two-thirds of all firearm deaths are suicides. Given the NRA’s opposition to virtually all gun regulation, I knew this was a touchy area.
A far harder call was the one I received from a Seattle police officer a few years earlier. The officer told me that my husband had ended his struggle with anxiety and depression with a single bullet. Suddenly, I was a 38-year-old widow and a single parent of two young children. I was left wondering how this had happened and whether it could have been prevented. I was deeply angry at myself, at my husband, at a treatment system that failed him and at a society that made it easy to buy a pistol. I wasn’t the best person to try to start a conversation with the NRA. No wonder it took me a few years to make the call.
But I learned a couple of surprising things from that call and the many follow-up meetings with a local NRA lobbyist and the executive director of the Second Amendment Foundation.
First, they were not just willing to talk but also willing to listen. There was a simple reason for their openness: They are no more immune from the pain of suicide than anyone else. Every year in the United States, about 750,000 of us experience a sudden disruption in our lives due to the suicide of a loved one or close friend. With such high rates of suicide, nearly all of us will be touched by the suicide of someone we know at some point in our lives. Gun rights advocates are no exception.
Second, I learned why the NRA had never focused its gun safety programs on suicide prevention. Like most of our society, it had bought into the myth that if someone wants to kill him or herself, there’s nothing you can do about it. But the opposite is true: Suicide is our nation’s most preventable cause of death when the right resources and services are in place.
Once we got past that misconception, the NRA and Second Amendment Foundation became active participants in a year-long conversation about reducing the number of suicides by firearm in Washington state. With the leadership of state Rep. Tina Orwall (D), we formed a working group that included gun rights advocates, public-health experts and individuals who have been affected by suicide.
One of the most effective ways to prevent suicides is to make it harder for a person considering suicide to access “lethal means.” Some people have the impulse to use a firearm to end their lives. Others may choose a less violent ending, such as a drug overdose. Our working group concentrated on limiting access to both of these lethal means. We were encouraged by studies showing that even temporary impediments to obtaining lethal means may save the life of an at-risk person. In some cases, all that’s needed is enough time for the most serious feelings of pain and hopelessness to subside.
Last week, I was on another call, with the office of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D). This time, the news was good — he would sign a new law designed to reduce the number of suicides by firearm and overdose in Washington. This law, passed March 31, is the first nationwide to bring together gun advocates and the firearm industry with suicide prevention advocates. It is supported by the NRA, the Second Amendment Foundation and many others interested in injury prevention and mental health. There was strong backing by legislators on both sides of the political aisle, including one who is an avid hunter and who shared that this law would change the way he stores firearms in his home.
The law calls for developing suicide prevention messages and training for gun dealers, shooting ranges, gun shows, pharmacies and drugstores. Participation by gun stores and ranges will be voluntary, and work will be done to create incentives for the industry to participate. The legislation also begins a new program to pair suicide prevention and gun safety education with the distribution of storage devices and medication disposal kits. It updates firearm safety pamphlets and the state’s hunter safety course to incorporate suicide awareness and prevention.
Over the past decade, suicide prevention has become recognized as one of our greatest public-health challenges. The new law in Washington state is a big step forward. But this bipartisan legislation can also mark the beginning of a different way of talking about gun violence in America. For too long, we’ve allowed the debate over legal rights to dominate the conversation. It’s time to give equal emphasis to what we have in common, including the grief we all feel over suicide.