An imperfect, important approach

Many factors can be involved in suicide. Both pro- and anti-gun people increasingly understand that a firearm in a house doesn't help.


A dad I know was pals with his grown son. They would chat on the phone almost every day. On weekends, they would go target shooting. “We’d go to a range in the woods. It was fun and loud, plinking away at soda bottles and paper targets,” the dad recalls. 

One morning, the son didn’t answer the phone. Hours went by. Finally, the dad drove across town in a snowstorm to his apartment. There he found him. And the gun. 

It wasn’t evident, but “he had been in a down spot,” the dad recalls. “He wanted company, didn’t get it, and started drinking.” Depression and alcohol certainly didn’t help. But neither did the gun. Had the gun not been there, he might have found another way to kill himself, but he could just as well have passed out and rubbed his eyes in the light of a new day. “He made a stupid snap decision that affected everybody’s life forever.” 

Almost three years have passed. “It’s still a fresh wound,” the dad said recently, his voice breaking. “Bidden or not bidden, it’s in my mind way too often.”

More than 60 percent of the firearm deaths each year in the United States are suicides. While firearm homicides have been falling, firearm suicides have been rising. It’s tempting to blame the gun, the decisive pull of the trigger, the lethality of the bullet.

But the gun owners and public-health specialists you’ll meet in Simon Montlake’s cover story (click here) know that line of argument is futile. There are far too many guns in circulation in the US – one for every man, woman, and child – to make gun prohibition, or even a significant reduction, a real-world possibility. 

Whether guns should be as powerful or as easily obtainable as they are is a debate that has gone on for decades without resolution. Pro- and anti-gun forces are talking past each other.

That doesn’t mean progress in stopping gun suicides is impossible. Without conceding any of the rights they hold dear, people who sell, buy, own, and use firearms are beginning to make a difference by watching fellow gun owners more closely for signs of distress, by urging people who seem suicidal to put their weapons beyond reach. 

Like a lot of solutions to thorny problems, that approach is imperfect. Who can know if depression is deep-seated or fleeting, if a person with suicidal patter is joking or sincere? But perfect solutions are rare. Name an issue: abortion, substance abuse, illegal immigration. It’s easy to advocate a ban, zero tolerance, a wall. But people are complex. They make choices for reasons often known only to them. 

Compassion and care are less decisive-sounding than a quick fix, but ultimately more effective. The day-after-day practice of brotherly love works far more wonders than tough love.

The concentric circles around us – family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, even the stranger we meet on the street – watch our back. We watch theirs. We affect everyone’s life forever.

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