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How to flatten the suicide curve that is rising during the pandemic: Do not own a gun | COMMENTARY

An employee displays a handgun at a gun store in Johnston, Iowa, Jan. 22, 2016. The decision to buy a handgun for the first time raises the purchasers' risk of deliberately shooting themselves by ninefold on average, with the danger most acute in the weeks after purchase, scientists reported on June 3, 2020.
An employee displays a handgun at a gun store in Johnston, Iowa, Jan. 22, 2016. The decision to buy a handgun for the first time raises the purchasers' risk of deliberately shooting themselves by ninefold on average, with the danger most acute in the weeks after purchase, scientists reported on June 3, 2020. (Max Whittaker/The New York Times)

The social isolation, financial hardships, reduced access to certain types of medical care and overall stress wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic has also had the effect of putting people with mental health problems at greater risk of suicide. A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association questioned whether it may not represent a “perfect storm” for suicide mortality that could last for many months, perhaps even years to come. The daily news coverage of virus-related deaths, the joblessness, the loss of community and religious contact, the barriers to in-person mental health care, all could push many who may already be prone to suicidal thoughts to act upon them. And with suicide already the tenth leading cause of death in the United States (the rate having risen by more than one-third over the last two decades), this could prove another deadly branch of the outbreak.

What should people do to ensure the welfare of those around you who may be at risk of suicide? Who might, for example, display worrisome behavior such as talking or writing about taking their own lives or about death generally, who may be drinking more or doing drugs, seem moody, anxious, angry or depressed? The first step is, of course, to reach out to that person and listen to his concerns, encourage him to see a mental health care provider, or, at minimum, get him to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for free and confidential emotional support 24/7. There is also a Crisis Text Line available by texting “HOME” or “Start” to 741741.

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Yet there is one more thing a friend, family member or colleague might do for someone at risk of suicide: Encourage that person not to own a gun. Or perhaps ask them to surrender a gun that might be in their possession. Over half of the nation’s suicides (more than 47,000 each year) involve the use of a firearm, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report. It is one of the most seriously misunderstood risks of gun ownership: The majority of gun-related deaths in this country are the result of suicide, not homicide. In other words, gun ownership is far more likely to result in the death of oneself or a loved one than in the death of another, potential home invaders, assailants and murderers included.

Those facts were confirmed in a study published just last week in the New England Journal of Medicine that looked specifically at handgun ownership among tens of millions of California residents. Not only did handgun ownership substantially raise the risk of suicide by firearm, it raised the risk of suicide by other methods, too. This was true for both men and women and it was true not just for recent purchasers but for those who bought their gun a year or more earlier. What makes the gun especially problematic is its lethality: those who try to kill themselves by other means are usually less likely to succeed.

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This is why Maryland must continue down the path of seeking to reduce gun violence and self-harm. We were encouraged this week by Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman’s pledge to pursue reforms endorsed by his task force on gun violence prevention treating the issue as what it is, a public health crisis. That task force is rooted in the murders of our colleagues, five Capital-Gazette employees two summers ago in Annapolis. Last Friday, its members offered some excellent ideas including expanding the state’s “red flag” law that enables court-ordered confiscation of guns and greater licensing and background checks. How much can be accomplished at the county level may be limited but the political significance of the campaign is not: Maryland ought to be a national leader in the quest for gun safety.

Given how Gov. Larry Hogan has held a relatively firm hand on COVID-19-related restrictions in the name of public health, his decision last month to veto legislation that would have required background checks on private sales and transfers of rifles and shotguns seems especially egregious. After all, the proposal did not prevent Marylanders from owning long guns but only required that purchasers be subject to the same kind of background check that handgun buyers already face. Lawmakers would be wise to override that veto at their earliest convenience. The more guns in circulation, the greater the risk of suicide. The data is inescapable and all the more worrisome as the pandemic continues as does its negative impact on mental health.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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