A version of this column appeared in the 4/21/13 edition on the News-Record of Maplewood and South Orange.
Last week several tragic stories made national headlines. One involved a four year old in Tennessee who found a loaded gun resting on a bed and accidentally shot and killed a woman at a cookout. A second occurred closer to home in Toms River, New Jersey. In this case the victim was a child. While playing in the backyard with a neighborhood friend, a four year old boy shot and killed his six year old playmate. Seeing pictures of the Toms River street where this tragedy unfolded – the quiet, leafy suburban streets not all that different from our own here in South Orange and Maplewood – I felt not only sadness, but worry. Could the same thing happen again? How can we prevent it?
Despite the media attention given to these types of stories, the greatest danger in having guns available to children and adolescents isn’t accidental shootings or even intentional homicides. The statistically overwhelming danger is that our children or young adults will kill themselves. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in our overall population, but it is the third leading case for young people ages 15 to 24. Also, this demographic is more likely than others to use firearms to end their lives. In fact firearms are used in more than half of all suicides, and the availability of firearms in the home is one of the leading risk factors for suicide according to the listed by the National Institute of Mental Health. Here is the latest grim statistic: more than 38,000 people in the United States take their own lives every year. This is more than twice the number of homicides.
The majority of these people suffer from depression. Today almost 7 percent of Americans suffer from major depression and for teens that number can rise above 10 percent. Depression is actually the leading cause of disability for those between the ages of 15 and 44 and mood disorders are pervasive in our society. While it’s not unusual for severely depressed people to have thoughts of ending their lives, and some do take the next step and make suicide attempts, those who use firearms are usually successful. Other methods allow time to reconsider. Unfortunately, with firearms there isn’t time for second thoughts. It’s important to know that interviews with survivors of suicide attempts show that they are almost universally relieved that their efforts failed. Since adolescents and children are more impulsive than adults, they are more likely to act on negative feelings rather than waiting them out or asking for help. That is why every expression of suicidal thinking made by young people has to be taken seriously.
In the recent debates on gun control, much has been said about protecting the public from the mentally ill, but I’d like to see more of the discussion focused on protecting those with mental illness from themselves. Given proper treatment, most severely depressed individuals do recover and go on to lead satisfying lives. Twenty thousand Americans ended their lives with a gun in 2012, and our society can and must do more to lower that number in 2013.
Several years ago one of my children attended a local private school that asked all parents to sign an agreement stating that if there were firearms in the home they would be kept under lock and key. It was also suggested that ammunition be stored separately. We weren’t required to sign the agreement, but the list of those who had signed was available to all parents. Simply asking parents to consider the issue was an important step in raising awareness about the need for gun safety at home. Creative measures like these should be considered in our discussions about keeping our kids safe.
What can we as a local and national community do to protect our vulnerable children, adolescents, and young adults? The gun control debate is complex and fraught with conflict, and as the two sides become more polarized it seems that a compromise is more elusive, but keeping our guns safely locked away from young people should be something on which we can all agree. At least that is my hope.