Expert highlights importance of suicide prevention in limiting gun deaths

More people kill themselves with firearms than are shot dead by someone else
SUNY Cortland professor Robert Spitzer discusses gun policy at the Rockefeller Institute of Government on Tuesday.
SUNY Cortland professor Robert Spitzer discusses gun policy at the Rockefeller Institute of Government on Tuesday.

ALBANY — A gun policy expert on Tuesday highlighted gun-related suicide prevention as the strongest lever in reducing the nation’s annual gun death tally.

Speaking at a policy forum at the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, SUNY Cortland political scientist Robert Spitzer pointed out that the vast majority of gun deaths in America come by suicide – not homicides, mass killings and gun accidents.

In 2017, nearly 24,000 of the country’s almost 40,000 gun deaths were suicides; nearly 15,000 gun deaths that year were homicides and just over 1,300 death were the result of gun accidents. Overall, the number of gun deaths fell just short of care-related deaths that year.

“The gun suicide problem, even now, doesn’t get quite the attention that it deserves,” Spitzer said.

Mass shootings, which consume much of the media and political attention around guns, account for about 1 percent of gun deaths, Spitzer said.

Spitzer, who has written a litany of books on American gun policy and history, sketched the long history of gun laws in America, noting that restrictions on gun possession date to before the U.S. Constitution was adopted. He said Duke University hosts a repository of thousands of early American gun laws, calling the source “a mindboggling compendium of all the gun laws that existed.”

Those early laws barred the sale of guns to native Americans, slaves, vagrants, felons and, in some cases, people of particular religions. Early laws regulated the storage and discharge of guns – one law he highlighted barred the discharge of a gun while drunk, except during weddings and funerals. Other laws barred firing a gun in public places, after dark, near roads and others areas.

He also said historically the government used to send out workers to create a “gun census,” going door to door to develop a count of how many and what types of guns existed.

Many of those laws have long fallen away, and Spitzer said the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia vs. Heller was the first time the court accepted an interpretation of the Second Amendment guaranteeing a personal right of gun ownership for protection in the home. But even that decision allowed for lawmakers to restrict and regulate gun ownership.

“It was not an absolute right by any means,” Spitzer said. “No right in the Bill of Rights is, after all.”

In the modern era, Spitzer said, gun ownership – the share of the country’s population that own guns – has gradually declined for decades and is likely to do so over the coming decades. But the people who do own guns own more and more: In the 1960s, guns owners on average possessed 2 1/2 guns, compared to over eight today.

“Younger people aren’t adopting gun ownership and gun habits very much, and it tends to be a habit one acquires fairly young or doesn’t acquire at all,” Spitzer said.

Spitzer highlighted New York’s new “red flag” law, which allows family members, law enforcement and school officials to ask a judge for an order removing guns from a potentially dangerous person, as useful in helping reduce some suicides in other states. He also said the link between the prevalence and guns and suicides rates is one of the strongest links found in gun research. The link is even more troubling for young people, he said.

“There’s a very high correlation, because when guns are generally available, when guns are more available, the suicide rate goes up,” he said. “This is without question one of the most important, it’s an area where much more could be done to sever the link with guns.”

And in schools, where mass shootings have reshaped how students and educators experience the school environment, Spitzer said it is important to remember that students are safer at school than almost anywhere else.

“The fact is that public schools are very safe places and so are colleges and universities,” he said. “A child in a public school is safer at school than they are at home or on the streets.”

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