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With suicide numbers at an all-time high, stronger preventive steps are needed — including gun buybacks | STAFF COMMENTARY

Baltimore Sun - 8/21/2023

The recent gun buyback event where $50,000 of firearms were purchased in the Edmondson Village Shopping Center parking lot, an effort organized by the Archdiocese of Baltimore, was derided by some of this newspaper’s readers for failing to attract young people who are most inclined to settle their grievances with a firearm. That may have been the case — police on the scene described sellers as middle-aged or older — but such criticism ignores the benefits of reducing the number of guns in circulation regardless of the owner’s age and background. While the event may have been aimed at making the streets of Baltimore safer, it can also yield a benefit in the privacy of one’s home whether in the city or beyond. Often ignored is the sad reality that the United States experiences more gun deaths each year from suicide than from homicide. And last year was no different in that regard.

Recently released statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate 49,500 Americans died from gunfire last year, the highest number ever recorded and a 3% increase from 2021. But the gun homicide rate actually declined slightly. According to preliminary gun death data analysis by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, 26,993 people took their own lives while 19,592 were the victims of homicide. By any standard, both of these numbers are unacceptably high but too often the public is unaware of the enormity of the risk posed by self-harm. From that perspective, the buyback’s haul of 356 firearms, whether they came from teens or retirees, city residents or suburbanites, suddenly seems more noteworthy. The U.S. has by far the highest suicide rate of any wealthy nation — roughly double that of the United Kingdom, for example — and the easy availability of guns is a major factor. Studies show more than half of suicides in U.S. involve use of guns with suffocation or hanging a distant second.

Buybacks are, at best, only a small part of the solution. A country serious about lowering the suicide rate would not only place greater restrictions on gun ownership (with more states imposing “red flag” laws, for example, where friends and family might be able to petition courts to remove lethal weapons from individuals judged to be at risk of self-harm) but take greater actions to reduce substance abuse, improve access to decent housing, better schools and quality nutrition, and make sure all Americans can get mental health care when they are in crisis (if not before). One of the more shameful shortcomings of the U.S. health care system is the challenge so many face in simply getting an appointment with a licensed professional counselor, social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist or other mental health provider let alone finding the means to pay for treatment.

One small step available to all of us would be to at least reduce the stigma associated with mental health care. Do you know someone struggling with a recent loss or perhaps seems depressed? Reaching out to them, showing concern and compassion, speaking to their friends and family about what you have observed can help. So would recommending a caregiver. And, if you are aware this individual has access to a firearm, it could be lifesaving if you would ask to hold it for safekeeping or at least discuss that possibility with others.

It’s surely no coincidence that calls to Maryland’s suicide hotline — 988 — have increased 38% this past year as the state moved to that three-digit code as part of a nationwide outreach effort to make it easier to call or text for assistance. Yet even that campaign can be improved upon. One survey found that only 13% of adults in this country were even aware of the hotline’s number. And the level of awareness is even lower for individuals of color and lower income. Suicide is the second-leading cause for young people in the U.S. (behind accidents) and might be the most preventable one of all. Why aren’t we talking about this crisis more? Because it’s been a problem for so long? That’s simply not an acceptable excuse. Not when they are so many thousands — young, old and in-between — taking their own lives, most commonly with a gun.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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