Suicide and gun policies

In Minnesota, guns kill one person and injure another each day. While the media draws attention to murders and mass shootings, three-fourths of firearm deaths are suicides, not violent crimes. In 2010, of the approximately 600 Minnesotans who committed suicide, nearly half used a gun. And University of Minnesota students should be concerned about suicide, especially as it relates to mental health. Depression is our students’ most frequently reported mental health condition, and the percentage of students reporting a diagnosis of depression has consistently increased, from 12.3 percent in 1998 to more than 25 percent in 2012. Suicide is in the top-three causes of death for young adults in Minnesota and nationwide, and 6 percent of students in Minnesota have reported having serious thoughts of suicide in the last year. That’s around 4,000 students at the University of Minnesota campuses.

Suicide rates are tied to gun availability; the more guns that are available, the more suicides occur — and not just gun-related suicides. However, guns are a particularly lethal tool, so having access to a gun gives someone who is depressed and considering suicide a much higher chance of succeeding.

Over the last several months, many policy solutions have been proposed to attempt to reduce or eliminate shooting deaths. But efforts to limit or reduce access to guns have been met at the state Legislature with staunch opposition. So much so that several bills introduced in the House and Senate have not been voted out of committee or, as in the case of a bill designed to require universal background checks for any gun purchase, have been scaled back considerably from their initial form. Most of these proposed policies, including banning assault weapons and large-capacity magazines and adjusting firearm possession penalties, do not even acknowledge the implications of gun availability on suicide. One of the few bills, House File 184, which attempts to address this by creating a voluntary registry for someone who does not wish to be allowed to purchase a firearm, has not been scheduled for a committee hearing.

We should never discount the importance of ways to address mental health problems, including reducing stigma, building community support structures and providing better access to treatment services. These policies require long-term planning and investment, as well as a change in culture that will take time. But by starting with polices that prevent people who are most at-risk of suicide from accessing a firearm, we can address the most immediate cause of death, the gun itself.

In public health, we aim to prevent injury and death within the population.

Limiting access to guns is not just about keeping students and the community safe from violent crime. It’s about keeping our friends, neighbors and fellow students safe as they continue through what is likely one of the most stressful periods of their lives.