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Guns offer too easy a way out

Of all people, I should have seen it coming. Not just because I was his mother but because this was not my first close encounter with suicide.

Fifty years ago, on Aug. 28, 1965, my father shot himself in Aberdeen after losing his job. Of course, the "why" of suicide is always more complex than just one thing. But whatever his reasons, My father's final act sent a shock wave that has reverberated through my family now for two generations. On that hot summer day long ago, I learned the world was not a safe place and that harm doesn't always come from a stranger.

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What I do know is that my dad was no coward. He fought in World War II, attaining the rank of master sergeant in the Army. He was only 51 when he bought a handgun for just one use. Soon after my father's death, my mother, who had been a stay-at-home mom, found work in a school cafeteria so she could be home when we were. She did her best to raise the five of us, from ages 5 to 15 years, alone.

Still, I was blindsided on that Friday — April 13, 2012 — when I received a call at work from a Baltimore County police detective. He asked if I was Peter's mother and then "Why would he do this?" Clueless, I replied, "Do what?" He answered, "Shoot himself." Peter was pronounced dead at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center that evening. We honored his wish to donate his organs.

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Peter was just 25, my middle son. Thanks to a scholarship from University of Maryland Baltimore County, he had graduated without debt with a bachelors' of science. For two years, he had held a good job in his field. With his long-time girlfriend, he had recently bought a modest home and a new car. He played soccer for fun and loved music and animals. To all appearances, he was doing well.

Peter purchased his handgun in 2011 for target shooting as well as for "protection" since he lived near the Baltimore City line where gun violence is rampant. It made me uneasy. I knew that owning a gun by itself tripled the risk of suicide, apart from family history. I told him so, and also about the immense sorrow my father's suicide had caused my family. Guns may not be the enemy, but they make a dangerous friend. He did not heed my warning.

No matter how successful or popular we might be, no matter how happy-go-lucky or collected we may appear, thoughts of suicide can breach our defenses. The act of suicide is often impulsive, the individual under the influence of substances or powerful, fast-changing feelings. That's why any obstacle or delay, even a small one, can save lives.

Guns allow no time for second thoughts and few second chances, unlike other methods. Suicidal individuals tend to use the method that's both handy and familiar. Research shows that most who survive an attempt do not just "find another way" to die, they find a way to live. Removal or safe storage of all firearms is within the power of each individual, costs little and has been proven effective to reduce the toll suicide takes from our families and communities.

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Mental health treatment needs to be more widely accepted, covered by insurance and available. But without first limiting access to the most lethal means in our homes, your loved ones may not make it to their first appointment. Family doctors need to be able to ask about access to guns in the home and inform patients about risk and safe storage.

What saddens me most is the enormity of lost potential, my father's and my son's, and that of over 20,000 other Americans, overwhelmingly white males, who reach for a gun in their moment of despair each year. For the sake of your loved ones, know that the difference between life and death may come down to whether a gun is within their reach at the moment they reach their lowest point. If you want to protect yourself and your family, get a dog, not a gun.

If you or a loved one are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, day or night, at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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

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