Probably the single, most effective thing we could do to reduce the incidence of completed suicide is restrict access to firearms,” says David Fassler, a child psychiatrist in Burlington, Vt., and an associate professor at the University of Vermont. “If you're impulsive and having thoughts about hurting yourself, you shouldn't be near them.”
More than half of teen suicides are committed with guns. Although girls are twice as likely to attempt suicide, boys are four times more likely to succeed in killing themselves, because they tend to use more lethal means, such as guns. According to a 1999 report by Surgeon General David Satcher, the increase in the rate of suicide during the 1980s and early '90s was almost entirely due to more young people using firearms to end their lives.
After his girlfriend broke up with him, 16-year-old Joe Muñoz, wanted to kill himself with one of his father's guns, but it was locked up. “Had his guns been out of the gun case, I would have shot myself,” recalls Muñoz, now 42 and a freelance journalist in Dallas. Instead he took two bottles of sleeping pills, realized what he had done when his heart started palpitating and called for help.
“What I tell parents whose kids are at high risk of suicide is just get the guns out of the house for now,” says John Kalafut, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University and president of the American Association of Suicidology. “I have sat with kids who said to me, 'If there had been a gun in my house a year ago, I wouldn't be talking with you today.' ”
Although gun-control measures enjoy little political support in Washington, a few states have tightened controls. A new Maryland law requires guns to be sold with trigger locks and requires buyers to take a two-hour gun safety class. Last year, New Jersey passed a law that eventually will require guns to be sold with “smart gun” technology, which allows them to be fired only by an authorized user.
Other proposals — such as making it harder for people under 21 to buy or possess guns — are not getting much political traction.
The politically powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) and other advocates of gun ownership say the restrictions are misguided. The New Jersey law is flawed, they say, because the technology to create smart guns does not exist. And Maryland's restrictions will do little to prevent crimes and accidents with guns, in part because the safety locks are ineffective, they add.
David Eccles, an Annapolis gun shop owner who taught his 3-year-old son how a gun works, contends that it's more effective to explain guns to a child than to use safety locks. “It's not going to be any trick [for a child] to figure out where the keys are kept or how to rip the lock off,” he said.
The NRA supports educating children, rather than keeping them away from guns, using a mascot known as Eddie Eagle to teach youngsters four basic steps to follow if they see a gun: Stop, don't touch, leave the area, tell an adult.
“The purpose of the Eddie Eagle Program isn't to teach whether guns are good or bad, but rather to promote the protection and safety of children,” the NRA's Web site says. “The program makes no value judgments about firearms, and no firearms are ever used in the program. Like swimming pools, electrical outlets, matchbooks and household poison, they're treated simply as a fact of everyday life. With firearms found in about half of all American households, it's a stance that makes sense.”
But gun-control advocates cite a new study, published in the January issue of the journal PEDIATRICS, which found the gun lobby's educational programs were ineffective. “They fail at keeping kids safe from guns,” Mike Barnes, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence United With the Million Mom March, says. “All they do is teach kids to recite the gun lobby's slogans. From an industry standpoint, it's a great marketing tool for introducing young people to guns.”
Research on the issue is mixed. Last year, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) task force reviewed 51 studies of whether gun laws prevent violent crimes, suicides or accidents and concluded that the studies were contradictory, incomplete or poorly designed. It called for more research, concluding that there is “insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws.”
But the government is unlikely to conduct much research into the issue. In 1997 Congress forbade the CDC from promoting gun control, and the center's funds for gun research have been slashed from $2.6 million in 1995 to $400,000 in 2002.
“No one knows if better gun control would reduce the suicide rate,” says David C. Clark, director of the Center for Suicide Research and Prevention at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center, in Chicago.
He notes that some countries with strict gun-control laws, such as Canada, have youth suicide rates that are comparable to or even higher than those in the United States.
“People would shift to other means such as hanging and pills,” he says, but he concedes, “We might make a small decrease in youth suicide.”
Even though the evidence is mixed, he adds, it might be worthwhile trying to restrict guns and measure the impact on youth suicide. “I, for one, would love to see such an experiment.”