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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – When you think of gun violence in America, you probably think of mass shootings, like Columbine or Sandy Hook or San Bernardino. But the most common shootings are the ones that get little coverage: Suicides.
Nationally, suicides are the most common form of gun death, and that statistic holds true here in the Valley. Between May 2014 and August 2015, 61 out of 99 gun deaths in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties, combined, were suicides. The percentages were especially high for Trumbull (27 out of 38) and Columbiana (17 out of 18) counties.
Help Hotline Associate Director Cathy Grizinski said that in her experience, guns are the most common method of suicide, and that was the case in WKBN’s analysis: 61 out of 111 suicides between May 2014 and August 2015 were by gun.
One of the key questions about gun suicides is whether people who are suicidal are determined to commit suicide, or if doing so is more of an impulse decision. If they’re determined, making guns less available might not make a difference. If it’s an impulse decision, keeping guns out of their hands could prevent their suicide.
One study found that most people who survive suicide attempts die from some other cause, and another found that the rate of survival for those who use a gun is much lower than those who try to commit suicide by other means.
However, Mahoning County Deputy Coroner Joseph Ohr said that it is not uncommon to see someone shoot themselves multiple times and survive, or shoot themselves multiple times before dying.
“We often have heard in the past that (suicides) are (random), or rash, or impulsive,” Grizinski said. “But…this individual may actually plan it and think about when and where and what they’re going to use. When they start talking about it, or family members may start thinking, ‘Wow this looks impulsive,’ that is a high risk…But we have seen that usually, it’s a planned process.”
U.S. Representative Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) said once someone gets to the point of wanting to commit suicide, they are determined to see the act through.
“A person that is determined to do themselves harm or to do someone else harm, if they can’t find access to a gun, they’re going to find other means by which to do that,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that restricting the Second-Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens is going to stop people that are determined to do criminal, terrorist or self-inflicted harm.”
But some lawmakers said stricter gun control would help prevent gun deaths. Ohio State Representative Michele Lepore-Hagan (D) said she supported President Obama’s executive order from earlier this year, which he said would help close loopholes in the gun application process.
“To use the analogy of the DUI laws… we didn’t ban alcohol, we didn’t ban cars, we just enacted some common-sense laws,” Lepore-Hagan said. “I think that we need to make sure that we pay increased attention to mental health issues, along with common-sense laws that will actually help to reduce this carnage.”
Many other developed countries require prospective gun owners to jump through more hoops before they get a firearm, such as going through safety training, getting a license and registration, giving a reason for having a gun and storing guns safely. Many of those nations have a lower gun homicide rate than the U.S., although it is unclear if that is because they have tougher gun laws.
“I think it’s just training, whether it’s training more mental health professionals to recognize issues of suicidal behavior in their clients, whether it’s law enforcement being more familiar with that as well, which I know, is being done,” Grizinski said of the legal situation surrounding gun control.
In Ohio, the only license needed for gun ownership is if you want to conceal a handgun, according to Laws.com. As for background checks, you only need one of you are buying a gun through a licensed dealer. If you buy through an individual or at a gun show, you don’t need to pass a background check.
Grizinski said she would be in favor of universal background checks for gun sales, which the U.S. does not currently have, even after Obama’s order, which did not affect people selling guns from their
private collections, say, to other individuals.
“My position on gun control is that the Constitution is very clear… that the right of the American people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” Johnson said. “We don’t have a gun problem, per se, we’ve got a people problem, a criminal problem, a terrorist problem, and in the context of guns being used to inflict personal harm on oneself, we have a mental health problem.”
Trumbull County Sheriff Thomas Altiere said if someone has mental health issues in Trumbull County, and then applies for a license to carry a concealed handgun, his or her past issues will surface during a background check. But if that person has had mental issues elsewhere, especially in faraway states, that might not be the case. He said he would like to see a more simplified, unified database where states can communicate better, but even that would not stop people who want to do harm from getting a gun.
“If somebody wants a gun, they’re going to be able to obtain it, in our society. There’s millions of guns out there,” Altiere said. “I’m very pro-Second Amendment.”
Both Lepore-Hagan and Johnson suggested putting an emphasis on catching mental illness in schools.
“It always really does go back to education, and starting from a really young age and targeting potential problems in very young children,” Lepore-Hagan said. “We need to make sure that we have enough money applied to our schools…You catch these kids at an early age, and then, we need to increase the amount of psychiatrists and therapists that we have in the schools.”
Ohr noted that most people who commit suicide are not clinically diagnosed as being mentally ill, so picking out people who are at-risk for suicide may be easier said than done.
Aside from changing gun laws, there is plenty that you can do to prevent suicide. Grizinski said 80 percent of people who commit suicide show signs of doing so before they kill themselves.
“It’s the general public, too – family and friends knowing that if you have a gun on the premises and this person is feeling issues of (suicide) or severe depression, you may want to put those in a secure location,” Grizinski said. “I think the whole movement about getting gun locks is a good idea, how to keep your gun safe if you do happen to utilize guns… getting training for gun handling.”
Part of the reason that suicides tend to be kept quiet is that they carry a sense of embarrassment and tend to be caused, at least partially, by isolation, according to Ohr.
“Be a better neighbor, be a better brother, be a better friend,” “I think it’s Genesis, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?‘ Yes, you are. We all have to be. It’s hard. Everybody’s busy… but you gotta check on your neighbors, you gotta check on your friends, your family.”
If you have any sense that a loved one is showing signs of being suicidal, you can have them contact someone at the Help Hotline at 1-800-427-3606.