Today, the Senate has voted to reverse an Obama regulation that would have made it difficult for people with mental impairments to buy firearms. The rule would have required the Social Security Administration to include the names of people with impairments who have their benefits administered by third parties. In the inevitable debate that will follow, one important question can’t be brushed aside: What are we doing about suicide?
This is not to downplay, of course, the problem of gun homicide. But the numbers are stark: There are more than 20,000 suicides using a form of firearm every year. It’s the tenth most common form of death in the United States, and, according to a Harvard Public Health analysis, firearms are far more dangerous to a suicidal person than any other method. And this is simply the data that we know; it’s unclear how many attempts there are in a given year.
This collides with gun rights advocacy because one of the most effective way of preventing suicide is restricting access to the means of it in the first place. In other words, to prevent suicide, the best thing to do, socially speaking, is to make it harder to buy a gun. That in itself would likely be a hard sell in any political environment, and it’s complicated by the fact that there’s no good way to spot a potential suicide risk. The ten risk factors are, aside from previous attempts, so broad that millions of people who will never even think of doing it fit in them. A childless man over the age of 45 who has one drink too many has hit four out of ten.
More specifically, psychologists use the acronym PLAID PALS to discuss likelihood of a suicide. Right after having a plan, the two questions are “Do they have a means to commit suicide?” and “What is its overall lethality?” Easy access to firearms, like it or not, make both pressing questions.
It’s fair to point out, as those opposed to the regulation did, that singling out mentally ill people is discriminatory, especially for a social problem so broad and complex. But the government hasn’t offered any other solutions, and this is a pressing issue for the GOP that directly affects their voters. Seven out of ten suicides in 2015 were white men (the group that votes for GOP candidates the most frequently), and the trends skew towards older white men as the most likely, which, again, were the most likely to vote for the GOP. This isn’t a partisan issue, but these numbers show how deeply this public health crisis strikes.
There’s reason to view Obama’s regulation as flawed, but this is a problem that can’t be solved through today’s Congressional actions.