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Originally published Wednesday, October 1, 2014 at 5:04 PM

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Guest: Focus on suicide prevention to reduce gun deaths

The debate about background checks for gun purchases misses the issue of preventing suicide deaths, writes guest columnist Jennifer Stuber.

Special to The Times

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I appreciate this compelling argument for reframing the debate about background checks as a public health issue. As... MORE
Funny, no reference to how the came to the 78% suicide by gun rate. Look up the Washington state health department... MORE


LISTENING to the current debate in Washington state over background checks for gun buyers around Initiatives 591 and 594, one might conclude the main policy challenge is how to limit the misuse of guns to prevent homicides.

But that would be missing the bigger picture. The sad reality is 78 percent of all firearm deaths in Washington state are suicides. According to the state Department of Health, more than 1,000 lives are lost each year to suicide in Washington state. In more than half of these suicides, a firearm was used. More people die by suicide in the state than in motor-vehicle crashes.

Framing the gun-control debate around criminal homicides and school shootings is a predictable way to arouse the emotions of voters. But when the debate is framed this way, it quickly degenerates into a pitched battle over personal freedoms and constitutional rights.

This diverts attention from the societal problem of how to reduce, substantially, overall deaths by firearms, which is a problem that would require more attention to firearm suicides.

Rather than continuing a narrow focus on preventing firearm assaults and homicides, embarking on a robust public-health initiative focused on firearm suicides could save a lot more lives. Washington should be a leader in addressing this public health challenge, considering the state’s suicide rate is 14 percent higher than the national average.

A public-health initiative to prevent firearm suicides could appeal to voters of both political parties. Conservatives who argue for the preservation of life already stand on common ground with liberals who wish to preserve the lives of innocents and people struggling with mental-health disorders who are at higher risk for suicide.

Some suicides by firearm don’t involve a newly purchased gun, and would not be affected by changes to laws on background checks. They involve a weapon obtained from a family member or neighbor who has not taken adequate steps to secure it. For example, the 17-year-old grandson of my dear friend took his own life with a gun that he easily obtained from a neighbor’s unlocked trailer.

Several studies have found that in U.S. households with children and firearms, fewer than half store firearms in a locked place or with a trigger lock, and away from ammunition.

Improvement in gun safety and storage is low-hanging fruit that could yield immediate reductions in the number of suicide deaths by firearm. King County’s Lok-It-Up campaign, which incentivized safe storage of firearms by discounting the price of lockboxes at participating retailers, is an example. These kinds of public-health campaigns need to be expanded. Other states have found that gun retailers are concerned about suicide and are receptive to education about the issue.

Washington state is blessed with a Legislature that is forward-thinking in its approach to suicide prevention. Washington is the first state in the country to require training in suicide prevention for all health-care professionals, principally because of the large number of veterans in the state who are at higher risk for suicide.

It is vital that health-care professionals take an active role in assessing whether a person at risk for suicide has access to a firearm and, if this is the case, to work with that person’s family and support system to limit that access until he or she no longer feels suicidal.

The state Legislature should take another step forward to prevent suicides and require gun owners receive training in safe-gun storage as well as education on the risk factors and warning signs for suicide.

Let’s not allow the highly divisive debate over the competing background-check initiatives to halt continued progress toward reducing overall deaths by firearms. Prevent those deaths by reframing the discussion around suicide.

Jennifer Stuber is the faculty director at Forefront, a suicide-prevention nonprofit, and has a Ph.D. in public health. She lost her husband, Matt Adler, to a firearm suicide in 2011.

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