It is an article of faith among opponents of gun control in California that this state’s tough firearm laws are pointless – that try as we might, sick people will do what sick people do, and death, as ever, will have its way.
But one of the key takeaways from the stunning report released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the difference that can be made by measures that keep lethal weapons out of the hands of people in crisis.
Three points stood in relief against the CDC’s major finding, which was that suicide rates climbed nationally by a shocking 25 percent over the last two decades, with half of states charting increases of 30 percent or higher.
First, the breathtaking proportion of suicides, 54 percent, by people who had no known mental health condition. That’s not because healthy people kill themselves, experts said, but because, as one told the New York Times, most victims “were never diagnosed” or didn’t get treatment.
Second, the leading method of suicide – guns, by grotesque margins. Notwithstanding the recent high-profile suicides by hanging of designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, about half of all suicides are done with firearms.
And third, the soaring rates of suicide in states such as Montana, Arkansas and Wyoming, where gun ownership is highest, versus states such as California, New Jersey and New York, where guns are more regulated.
Though suicide is complex, and a product of many factors, it is also typically an impulsive act, and an impulse that passes. One 2001 study found that a 70 percent of those who had attempted suicide and failed had thought about it for less than an hour, and a quarter had considered it for less than five minutes.
A 1978 study of people who tried and failed to leap to their death from the Golden Gate Bridge found that nine out of ten were still alive more than 26 years later; in interviews, survivors said they almost instantly regretted jumping. In fact, nine out of ten people who attempt suicide live to die later of other causes.
But of all the means to an end, a bullet leaves the least margin for reconsideration. That’s why suicidal gun owners are often counseled to put their bullets in an ice tray, cover them with water and freeze them.
This is not to say that California has no issue with gun suicides. As researchers Fredrick Vars and Bryan Barks pointed out in a recent op-ed, nearly 1,600 people killed themselves here with guns here in 2016.
The two authors were advocating for Assembly Bill 1927, pending in the state Senate, which would let at-risk people put themselves on a voluntary no-buy list with licensed dealers for firearms.
We, too, support AB 1927, along with other sensible gun violence prevention measures, such as the “red flag” gun law passed in 2014 in California, allowing authorities to temporarily seize guns from people deemed a risk to themselves or others.
But California’s suicide rate in 2016 (12.1 per 100,000) was lower than all but five states (New Jersey’s was lowest), and less than half of the 29.2 suicides per 100,000 in Montana. And though, like nearly all states, suicide rates have risen here, this state’s increase was among the lowest, too.
There is work to be done, but lives are unmistakably being saved here. Californians can put some faith in that as well.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.