Letter: Suicide is a valid reason to reduce firearm availability

By Archie Bleyer /

Published Mar 8, 2014 at 12:01AM

Since the Newtown Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, 22 states have passed legislation to tighten gun restrictions.

Oregon failed last year and is trying again with Senate Bill 1551 that would expand background checks. Basing the case on reducing homicides hasn’t overcome the gun lobby’s stance of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and “control mentally ill people, not guns.” Another strategy may be to address suicide and self-inflicted harm by attempted suicide, as highlighted by the two recent public suicides in Bend, just weeks apart, by a student in class at Bend Senior High School and a young woman in Pioneer Park — both by guns.

Oregon has the second-highest rate of suicide among all 50 states in our country, most of which are by firearm. The counties of Central Oregon are among the highest in the state. Our three counties have an estimated annual average of 30 suicides by gun, which are not made public since they occur on personal property.

Ironically, the week before the last Bend suicide shooting, USA Today reported that an average of 20 American children and adolescents are hospitalized every day for firearm injuries, another 3,000 die every year before they get to the emergency room and among 15- to 19-year-olds, firearm injuries are the second-leading cause of death.

Sardonically, the day before our high school suicide-by-gun, Mark Kelly, former Rep. Gabby Giffords’ husband, testified at an Oregon congressional hearing on behalf of SB 1551.

Whereas nonfirearm suicide rates are essentially equal state by state, suicide-by-gun rates are directly proportional to gun ownership levels.

New York, with its more restrictive gun laws, ranks lowest in suicides in the country. All 12 case-control studies in the U.S. found that suicide by gun were more likely to occur in homes with guns. For every instance in which a gun at home is shot in self-defense, 22 residents of the home are killed or injured and 11 suicides are attempted or completed.

In Oregon, three-fourths of gun fatalities are suicide and more than half of suicides are by gun, as are 90 percent of rural suicides.

Worldwide, our country has by far both the highest suicide-by-gun rate and the highest rate of gun ownership. A chart of suicides by gun per resident versus guns per resident among 50 socioeconomically advantaged countries shows a direct correlation, with the U.S. by itself twice that of the nearest countries and more than five times that of the 50-country average. Our suicides-by-gun rate has been increasing steadily since the Federal Assault Weapons Ban expired in 2004. We now have nearly twice as many suicides by gun as homicides.

In Canada, Norway, the United Kingdom and New Zealand, legislation and regulatory measures that reduced the availability of firearms in private households distinctly strengthened the prevention of suicides by gun.

In Australia, a buyback of 650,000 guns and tighter rules for licensing and safe storage of those weapons remaining in public hands reduced the number of privately owned firearms by one-fifth and suicides by gun by half.

Despite claims to the contrary by the gun lobby, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 was effective in lowering our country’s suicide rate. Before the ban, the suicide-by-gun rate in 15- to 24-year-old males climbed steadily. Within five years of the law’s enactment, the rate fell to its lowest level since 1972.

Between 2002 and 2007, our national suicide-by-gun rate was constant at an average of 17,000 deaths per year. In 2008, our Supreme Court contravened a law in our nation’s capital that banned handgun ownership and required firearms in homes to be locked. Our national suicide-by-gun rate increased steadily thereafter from an average of 553 additional deaths per year to 19,766 in 2011.

Are we going to once again largely ignore a suicide among us, this time by a high school student who shot himself in class?

Our media must be able to raise awareness of the problem. Preventing suicide is everyone’s business. And ignorance promotes suicide.

How much more evidence do we need?

— Archie Bleyer, M.D., lives in Bend.