Guns and suicide: Utah needs honest search for solutions

June 30th, 2019|Op-Ed|0 Comments

This Op-Ed by Derek Monson and Carrie Butler originally appeared in The Deseret News. Read it in its entirety here.

Suicide rates in the United States are at record highs, according to a recent federal study. Sadly, Utah’s suicide rates have been even higher. A major factor in Utah’s high suicide rate is gun-related suicide, according to a state-funded suicide study performed by Harvard scholars.

These tragedies ought to catalyze a dialogue that informs critical thinking, explores legitimate disagreements and builds consensus around solutions for gun-related suicide among policymakers and the public alike. Instead, we have seen a debate driven by fear and concerns over political power.

The vocal extreme on one end peddles fear by painting a picture of a grand conspiracy to confiscate as many guns from law-abiding Americans as possible. The vocal extreme on the other end seeks to alter the balance of political power by delegitimizing the faceless “gun lobby.”

Neither side views the other as reasonable human beings with different opinions — humans whose rights, concerns and ideas should be respected and considered. As a result, we sustain the status quo instead of reaching solutions that both strengthen Utahns’ freedoms and improve their lives.

The families devastated and communities shaken by suicide — not to mention those whose lives may be saved by better approaches to suicide prevention — deserve better.

For example, take proposals to create Extreme Risk Protective Orders in Utah, also called “red flag laws.”

Red flag laws allow a family member or law enforcement to petition a court to temporarily remove firearms from an individual whose behavior poses a danger to themselves or others. In the context of suicide, this means the person has attempted suicide or threatened to do so. More than a dozen states — some Republican (Indiana), some Democrat (Connecticut) and some swing (Florida) — have enacted such laws, and they have garnered national bipartisan support as well.

Research suggests that a red flag law will reduce the rate of gun-related suicides. In Indiana, that translated into a drop in overall suicide rates, while in Connecticut it did not (other means of committing suicide offset the gains in gun-related suicide).

In Utah, this could potentially address a serious problem. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Utahns between 10 and 24 years old, and the second-leading cause of death for Utahns between 25 and 44 years old. Suicide kills eight Utahns for every homicide in the state, and half of all suicides in Utah are committed using a gun. Further, a public opinion poll reported that 68% of Utahns show some support for the idea of a red flag law.

That should be a recipe for a healthy public dialogue about whether such a policy is right for Utah. Sadly, politics has preempted a healthy legislative debate.

Of course, the politics surrounding any proposed law matters, and should be taken seriously. Politics sets the realistic boundaries for our governing decisions. But good politics takes seriously a proposed law’s potential to save lives, and prioritizes policy debates accordingly.

These political issues point to some thorny realities for serious consideration of a red flag law in Utah. On one hand, it will likely require supporters to scale down expectations for what the law should address, while ensuring effectiveness for gun-related suicide. Even the National Rifle Association has expressed support for such laws if they include certain due process and Second Amendment protections — no small thing for a gun-rights advocacy group. That means consensus will require compromise.

On the other hand, gun-rights supporters will likely need to acknowledge circumstances in which protecting the life of a suicidal person is more important than access to legally owned guns. It will also require recognizing that guns are a different and much more lethal way to attempt suicide. In Utah, the fatality rate for firearm suicide attempts was 86.5%, compared to fatality rates ranging between 0.5% and 44.1% for all other means of attempting suicide.

There are legitimate factual, evidential and constitutional claims on all sides of the debate about policy concerning gun-related suicide. But with hundreds of Utahns per year using a gun to end their lives, the status quo is truly not an option.

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