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Guns, Suicide and Reducing Lethal Means

The subject of gun ownership can be controversial, with each side having strong views. Many people who own guns cite safety as a main reason – to protect their homes and loved ones. However, what is intended to save a life can also be responsible for taking it – by accident and suicide.

Those who choose to own guns should follow these recommendations to help prevent accidents in the home:

  • Firearms should be stored unloaded in a locked cabinet, safe, gun vault or storage case. The storage location should be inaccessible to children.
  • Locking devices that render firearms inoperable can be used in addition to locked storage.
  • Ammunition should be stored in a locked location separate from firearms and out of reach of children or other unauthorized persons.
  • Always double check that firearms are unloaded when you remove them from storage. Accidents could occur if a family member borrows a gun and returns it to storage while still loaded.
  • Talk to your children about guns and gun safety. By removing the mystery surrounding guns, your child will be far less curious about guns and more likely to follow safety rules.
  • Make sure children understand the difference between a toy gun and a real gun, and the difference between “pretend” and real life.

Another aspect of guns and safety that can be easily overlooked is suicide by firearm. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., and guns are the most common way that people die by suicide. In 2016, the U.S. had 14,415 firearm homicides and 22,938 firearm suicides.

Studies show that the majority of suicide attempts occur within three hours of people deciding to kill themselves. Because firearms are so lethal, only 10 percent of people who use them in a suicide attempt survive, compared to much lower rates for other methods. One of the key factors that determines whether someone will die by suicide during a time of crisis is access to lethal means.

Reducing Access to Lethal Means

“Means reduction” is reducing a suicidal person’s access to lethal means and is an important part of suicide prevention. Means reduction is based on several key facts:

  • Many suicide attempts occur with little planning during a short-term crisis.
  • Intent isn’t all that determines whether a person lives or dies – means also matter.
  • Ninety percent of suicide survivors do NOT go on to die by suicide later.
  • Firearms used in youth suicide usually belong to a parent.

If you suspect someone you care about may be a danger to themselves, take the following steps:

  • Talk with the person. A discussion about removing lethal means can communicate that you care enough to take that extra step to ensure their safety.
  • In the case of a household member or family member with access to your home, the safest option is to store your firearms away from home until the person has recovered.
  • Do everything in your power to remove firearms from the person’s home. This is not about confiscation; it is a life-saving precaution. Once the crisis is over, the person can have their guns returned.
  • If you are feeling at risk, give your gun to another person during an at-risk or crisis period.

Military Veterans at Risk

Veterans account for approximately 18 percent of adult suicide deaths in the U.S. but they are only 8.5 percent of the population. Approximately 20 veterans die each day by suicide. Veterans are even more likely than the general population to use a gun to commit suicide.

As the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention states, “By separating a suicidal person from their firearm even temporarily, you increase their chances for survival by removing a highly lethal method from their access. One of the important factors we can give a suicidal person is time: for the person to move out of the crisis moment and regain their usual healthier ways of coping; to receive help; for the attempt to be interrupted; or for the person to change their mind.”

If You Are in Crisis

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – Call this 24/7 crisis hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Crisis Text Line – Text TALK to 741-741 to text with a trained crisis counselor for free. Veterans can text 838255 to contact the Veterans Crisis Line.

[Jamie Becker is the LHSFNA’s Director of Health Promotion.]

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