Md. law: 'Buying time for a change of mind' in suicide

The new Extreme Risk Protection Order law — a.k.a. the "red flag" law — that goes into effect on Oct. 1 promises to save many lives by removing firearms from those in danger of harming themselves or others. Over 250 Marylanders shoot themselves every year. Our rural counties have 35 percent higher suicide rates because guns are used more often in the act. Firearms are the single most common and least survivable method, used in roughly half of all suicides.

The groundswell from the fatal shootings of students at Parkland and Great Mills High Schools lifted the Extreme Risk Protection Order bill into the limelight, but this law originated from the loss of family members to suicide by gun.

I lost my dad in 1965; he was 51 when he bought a handgun to shoot himself. My mom knew of his plans and called our priest and his best friend for help. They came to talk to him, but they did not ask to take his gun. A few days later on a hot August day, he told my mom to take us five kids to the swimming pool. I was just 9, and I count that as the last day of my carefree childhood.

My son Pete shot himself in 2012, when he was just 25. He had a college degree, a good job, a steady girlfriend and a bright future. He may have been suffering from depression, but none of us realized he was in such a terrible place he’d rather die. We did not ask him for his handgun.

This second time around, I got angry. I read up on what works to stop suicide and came to one clear conclusion — reducing access to the most common and most lethal method is simple, quick, inexpensive and effective. I asked my state delegate, Geraldine Valentino-Smith, to sponsor the bill that will soon become law.

Family members are often the first to see signs that their loved one is struggling. If concerned about someone, ask them if they are considering suicide. If yes, ask if they have access to a gun. Maryland’s Court of Appeals ruled in 2006 that the background check law allows for the temporary transfer of guns. Once firearms are safely secured, stay with them and call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, day or night, at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for guidance.

But if asking the individual to turn over guns voluntarily does not seem realistic, family members and law enforcement among others can petition in court for the removal of firearms and to prohibit any firearm purchases. A judge or commissioner can issue a temporary Extreme Risk Protection Order. It is served by law enforcement who will take away that person’s firearms immediately. The gun owner has the right to a hearing before a judge within a matter of days. A judge may consider threats or acts of violence, substance abuse and health issues, and a few other things. The judge then determines whether to return the guns or issues a final order for up to one year.

Although firearm removal does not directly address the cause, whether mental illness or a crisis, it’s all about buying time for a change of mind or for help to arrive. Individuals can become suicidal over the span of minutes. Without an easy method handy, their intense emotions and pain will usually subside before they can act. Even if they attempt another way, other less lethal methods allow more time for successful interventions. Making it just a little harder to die saves many suicidal individuals for them to get the help they need.

Most who die by suicide, overwhelmingly white males in the U.S., have not been diagnosed with any mental illness. Due to stigma, lack of insurance, or a shortage of providers, they typically do not get mental health treatment. It’s complicated. What is simple, inexpensive and within our power is to make it harder for suicidal individuals to use a gun to end their lives. Too much talent and potential is lost to the world and too much pain is left behind by preventable suicides.

Dorothy Paugh is a member of the Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors; she can be reached at editor@allianceofhope.org.

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