The Sept. 8 article about increased gun sales (“Twin Cities sees guns, ammunition shortage amid crises,” front page), stating that 40% of these sales represent first-time purchases, raised alarms. A noteworthy study appearing in the New England Journal of Medicine, and reported on in the Star Tribune in June, showed a strong correlation between first-time gun owners and suicide.
The largest study ever to examine the relationship between suicide and handgun ownership, this research added to other studies’ overwhelming evidence that access to guns is a risk factor for suicide. The study found, over a 12-year period, that men who were first-time handgun buyers were more than three times as likely to die by suicide as men who hadn’t bought handguns. Women — who now comprise 40% of new gun buyers — were more than seven times as likely to die by suicide as other women.
Gun owners are not more suicidal; suicide attempts with a gun are more deadly. Only 4% of suicide attempts result in death (CDC), but several studies have shown that lethality jumps to 90% when a gun is used. Guns allow few second chances — a tragic finality, since only about 10% of people who survive suicide attempts eventually die of suicide, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Adding to the risk of readily available firearms, suicide attempts are often impulsive, prompted by temporary crises (25% of those who attempt act within even five minutes of deciding to end their lives, according to the National Library of Medicine).
Based on historical precedent of access to guns amid economic stress, a May 2020 analysis estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic may result in a 20-30% increase in gun suicide.
As so many of us know too well, firearm suicide was already a crisis in Minnesota before COVID-19. Nearly 4 of every 5 gun deaths in Minnesota are from suicide, which means more than 300 Minnesotans end their lives at the end of a gun each year, leaving friends and family members to grieve their loss. Minnesota rural counties have a gun suicide rate that is twice that of urban areas. And our teenagers are at increasing risk of suicide, now at a record high, with increases every year since 2007.
More guns in the home, new gun owners, a pandemic and an economic crisis paint a stark picture. Yet suicides are generally preventable.
Studies and experience indicate that intervention can have a profound effect on saving lives by blocking suicidal individuals from accessing guns during a time of crisis — removing them, storing them out of reach or convincing gun owners to voluntarily surrender their weapons.
“Suicide is really hard, and if you make it harder, logistically, it’s much less likely to happen,” said Mike Anestis, executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center and author of “Guns and Suicide: An American Epidemic.”
Each of us can take action right now to prevent gun suicide.
First, during this time of isolation and disconnection it’s even more important to contact friends and family members to let them know you care. Various experiments have underscored how lifesaving it can be for suicidal people to feel cared about — even texts, e-mails or letters have been associated with reductions in suicide attempts.
Don’t be afraid to ask directly if someone is considering suicide. Contrary to popular belief, you will not put the idea in someone’s head if it was not already there, and you may save someone’s life.
If you are yourself having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to speakingofsuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.
Second, if you have a gun in your home be sure it’s stored locked and unloaded, with ammunition locked separately. Even if no one in your home seems suicidal now, this one step can prevent a bad day from turning fatal. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that more than 80% of teens who ended their lives with a gun used a weapon belonging to someone in their home.
Third, make gun safety a voting issue. Extreme risk protection orders (“Red Flag” laws) and background checks on all gun sales have been proven to save lives in other states without harming the rights of responsible gun owners.
Despite convincing scientific evidence and strong public support for gun safety laws, our Minnesota Legislature continues to treat gun safety as a partisan talking point. Gun suicide is a public health emergency. This election, vote for candidates who promise open and thoughtful debate about how to keep Minnesotans safe.
Finally, for new gun owners in our state, please take this responsibility seriously. Minnesota has a proud tradition of responsible gun ownership, and there are many reputable gun stores that will help you learn to be a safe and responsible gun owner.
Marit Brock, of St. Paul, is past chair of the Minnesota chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense. Rich Cowles, of Eagan, volunteers for various gun violence prevention groups.