Wednesday, January 06, 2021

How Utah Is Confronting Its Gun Suicide Epidemic

Ian Ayres

Ian Ayres and Fredrick Vars

The stress, isolation, and economic displacement of the pandemic combined with the spike in gun sales – especially to new gun owners -- has created a toxic cocktail that will likely lead to a surge in gun suicides. 

In normal times, we lose more than 20,000 Americans each year to gun suicide.  But a CDC survey tells us a whopping 10.7% of adults seriously considered suicide in June.​​​​​​ And more and more Americans have a ready means to take their own lives – with FBI gun purchase background checks are up nearly 70% so far this year.  Call centers across America are reporting increased calls to suicide and mental health crisis hotlines—in some cases as high as 300%.

The time is now for states to action to stave off these irreversible tragedies.  And a new effort in Utah may provide a guide.

Utah has added a suicide-protection module to many of their gun safety training courses.  And with good reason.  In Utah over the ten years ending in 2018, for every unintentional shooting death, there have been more than 75 gun suicide deaths.  As Clark Aposhian, a firearm instructor and chair of the Utah Shooting Sports counsel puts it, “protecting your family involves more than keeping them safe from accident or attack.”

What’s really interesting is the way the courses are trying to prevent gun suicide.  The new advice is for friends and family to offer to temporarily store the weapons, or at least the gun lock keys, when they see a gun owner at risk of hurting himself or others.

An amazing 30-second public service announcement opens with a Clint Eastwood type firing several rounds at a gun range.  He then turns to the camera and says: “Last year I was at my lowest.  I was going through some pretty serious depression. A couple of friends stopped by the house and said they were worried about me.  Said they would feel a lot better if they could hold on to my fire arms until things turned around. . . . I think they saved my life.” 

Aposhian is urging people to step forward when they see a loved one who is struggling.  “Go over to their house, kind of like a mini intervention at their door. Put your arm around them and say, ‘I’m worried about you. Let me babysit your guns for a while.’”

It is already common to hold on to a friend’s car keys when they’re drunk.  The same idea can be applied to firearms, except friends might ask to hold on to the keys to a gun lock.  We’ve all heard the phrase, friends don’t let friends drive while drunk. The Utah analogy might be: friends don’t let friends discharge firearms while distressed.

One limitation of this “babysitting” approach is that the person in distress might resist even temporarily ceding their weapons, just as drunk drivers sometimes resist handing over their car keys.

But government can empower gun owners to help themselves.  States should give gun owners the option of creating advance directives empowering particular friends to decide if it becomes prudent to temporarily let someone else hold on to their guns.  Gun owners can already do this with a private gun trust, but the process should be standardized and simplified.  States can make this option more salient so that gun owners and the friends and family can more readily contemplate whether this pre-designation makes sense for them. 

Some parties where alcohol is served have a designated key master, who is given everyone’s car keys and decides at the end whether the owner can safely drive.  The state could likewise make it possible for gun owners to designate friends who could later decide whether they can safely possess guns. 

The advance directive option would be a kind of privatized red flag statute that allows gun owners to craft their own means of protection.  Instead of having a court decide whether a particular gun owner is an imminent danger to himself or others, the gun owner would decide who they trust to make the decision. 

The designee would have the legal right to take custody of the affected guns or instruct the police to take temporary possession.  Advance directive statutes could also empower the designated friends to prevent the gun owner from buying new firearms during a crisis.

And we shouldn’t forget that gun owners themselves are often well placed to recognize that they are or are becoming at risk. That’s why states would also be wise to enact safe harbor statutes that would allow gun owners to give their firearms to police for safekeeping. 

Owners who lost their guns (because their designee subsequently decided they were at risk) would have a legal right to reclaim their guns later if they could convince either their designated decider or a court that they could safely possess.

As with any voluntary program, education and an easy path to participate are critical.  Simply by adding a designation check-box on firearm license or permit applications, states could inform and make it easy for gun owners to choose whether or not to make such a designation.  Eleven states have general permit requirements and forty-nine states issue concealed carry permits that provide such an opportunity.  Designation forms can also be made available at gun shops and gun training sessions to improve uptake. 

The Utah experience suggests that we may be able to bring down the number of firearm suicides without government mandates.  As the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition sees it, by letting loved ones intervene “we can protect our family, our friends and our freedom.”

Ian Ayres and Fredrick Vars are law professors at Yale University and the University of Alabama, respectively, and co-authors of the book “Weapon of Choice: Fighting Gun Violence While Respecting Gun Rights.”

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