Firearm suicide is gun violence.
When we talk about gun violence in our state and in our country, we often talk about the mass shootings that devastate our communities all too regularly. But alongside these national tragedies are the daily tragedies of firearm suicides, which account for 75% of all gun deaths in Washington State.
On average, someone dies by suicide every eight hours in Washington State and almost half of them use a firearm. If we are to reduce the level of gun violence in Washington State, we must tackle the challenge of suicide prevention head-on.
Many believe that suicide is underreported because of the related stigma. The two strongest risk factors of suicide are mental illness and substance abuse. However, many populations are disproportionately affected by suicide. Such as:
- Men are more than six times as likely to die than women by suicide with a firearm. In Washington State, the most at risk of group for suicide are males over 50 living in Eastern Washington.
- Veterans are at higher risk of suicide compared to the general population of Washington residents.
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death in our youth and young adults (ages 10-34) and LGBTQ youth have higher rates of suicide attempts than the general population.
- A young Native American commits suicide with a gun every six days in the United States.
- Access to a firearm triples the risk of death by suicide.
Taking a Public Health Approach to Suicide Prevention
The causes of suicide are as varied as the solutions. Washington State is demonstrating how approaching firearm suicide as a public health challenge can revolutionize the approach to this complex challenge. Here’s how:
Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs)
ERPOs are an important tool to help people in crisis. Extreme Risk Protection Orders give families, through a court process, a legal pathway to remove guns from a loved one. In fact, research has shown that as many as 10 suicides are prevented for every 100 guns removed by Extreme Risk Protection Orders.
Since January 2019, Washingtonians have been able to voluntarily request that they be placed on a list of individuals ineligible to purchase firearms. The policy, which only requires individuals to fill out a simple form and present it to a specified court official (along with identification), helps individuals who know they may be at risk to take their safety into their own hands. Washington is currently the only state in the country with this simple, commonsense tool.
In 2018, Washington voters passed Initiative 1639 which encourages gun owners to safely store firearms. Otherwise, gun owners are potentially criminally liable should someone not legally allowed to possess a firearm access their guns. When followed, this creates a barrier between suicidal thoughts and action. The policy will also help keep guns out of the hands of children and teens, who often die as a result of self-inflicted gunshot wounds from firearms found in the home.
Firearms and 72-Hour Involuntary Holds
Community members in crisis are often held for 72 hours under Washington’s Involuntary Treatment Act. Thanks to a law passed in 2019, these individuals who are exhibiting dangerous behavior will be subject to a temporary, six-month prohibition on firearms possession or purchase, helping to ensure that they and their families have time to seek treatment.
Firearms and Incompetency to Stand Trial
Washington and federal laws have, for years, prohibited people found guilty of certain crimes and found not guilty by reason of insanity from purchasing and possessing firearms. But there was a loophole: people with a history of violent acts, found incompetent to stand trial, were legally allowed to purchase and possess firearms. Washington closed this loophole in 2019 to help keep people at high risk of self-harm from accessing firearms.
Together, these five firearms policies create an important web which can catch people and keep them safe before it is too late. Firearms violence and suicide are complicated issues, with interrelated and complex causes and solutions. Building effective and complete sets of policies, which give people tools at multiple touch points and which are available to everyone in our state, is an important part of solving this preventable public health crisis.