Oh Bob Costas, I know how you feel. Two years ago I had a vision. If I could only convince people to not store their guns in their homes, the suicide rate would drop by 10% at least. Considering about 35,000 people die by suicide each year, that’s 3,500 lives. I wrote Can an Obstacle Prevent Suicide? and saw my next stop as talking to the President of the NRA. Hey, Joan of Arc is a childhood hero of mine; impossible situations always deserve a shot.
I never got as far as a meeting. I looked at the NRA website and saw an effort to allow college students the freedom to carry arms on campus. WOW. Let’s arm a bunch of kids with a not-fully-developed prefrontal cortex, who tend to experiment with alcohol and drugs with their personal means to blow up themselves or others. Bad guys have guns, the argument goes, so we ought to have guns too. I gave up before I started, realizing the that even my David-like ambition could never dent the all-powerful NRA. I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid.
Since that moment in time, the evidence in favor of storing guns away from the home has mounted. I discovered a study in The New England Journal of Medicine that showed a comparison of states with the highest levels of gun ownership versus those with the lowest. Strangely enough the number of nonfirearm suicides was almost identical. Firearm suicides accounted for 10,394 more deaths in the high gun ownership states over a four-year period.
I’ve spoken with countless medical professionals and psychologists who agree the suicide rate could be curbed dramatically if only guns were a bit more out of reach. The stories repeat themselves, “Oh my children have no idea of where the guns are, and even if they did, they don’t know the combination.” Imagine how these parents feel when the medical professional obtains the exact location and combination from the children. Even then some refuse to take the guns from their homes.
Armed with this evidence, I became emboldened again. At a talk a little more than a year ago, in Dallas, TX, where I presented my case. Suicides are almost twice the rate of homicides. 83% of gun-related deaths in these homes are the result of a suicide, often by someone other than the gun. Speaking about any restriction on guns in Texas is a risky move. Two of the chairs for the event had lost their teen children to suicide, both suicides completed with a firearm. I had this naïve notion that if I presented the facts, these families might become advocates for storing guns away from a residence.
What happened? I could hear crickets. I strategically placed the heavy topic in the middle of my presentation in case I needed time to recover. I did, just barely. The presentation sparked an intense conversation with one of the two families. We agreed to disagree. I felt awful. I had inflicted more pain on these two wonderful families, with nothing to show for it.
I abandoned my gun message, just because I figured if I alienated audiences, my entire message would be lost. Better some means of suicide prevention implanted than none at all. I wonder now if in compromise I have sacrificed the very thing that would save the most lives.
In the recent CDC mortality tables,I discovered some numbers that may shock you. Everyone quotes suicide as the third cause of death 18-24 year-olds. When parsing these numbers more carefully, it becomes obvious that ranking is skewed. Suicide is the third cause of death for this age group only because of the overwhelming number of young black men who die by homicide. If you take young black men out of that age group, suicide is the second highest cause of death among that age group. Imagine if guns were less accessible. Would not the homicide and suicide rate drop?
Another stunner for me was the steady increase of suicide over the past decade except for men over the age of 65. A more careful look at the numbers showed the number “accidental deaths by firearms” for men over 65 had increased at the same rate that others had for suicide. Who are we kidding? When I see numbers like this, my silence seems an incredible cop-out.
So Bob, thank you for being so much braver than me. I know right now your inbox is full of hate mail, but you have done the right thing. Sometimes the truth hurts, but here’s the thing. The truth doesn’t kill people, or at least not as quickly or surely as a bullet. Perhaps Bob Costas’s bravery will cause people to pause and put their guns in a different place. Sometimes a pause is all you need to save a life.