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Touching the third rail of Wyoming culture: guns and suicide

Touching the third rail of Wyoming culture: guns and suicide

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We in the newsroom had been talking about doing something about Wyoming's horrendous suicide problem for a couple of years. Early this year, night editor EJ Conzola basically said we're done talking.

It seemed so simple: we've got a problem and we need to do something about it.

It wasn't. Common assumptions such as the tribes and suicide weren't true. Altitude may be a factor. Some programs work, some don't.

As for me, I decided to touch the third rail of Wyoming culture: guns and suicide.

The story that appeared Sept. 19 received seven comments, more than all the other stories in the series combined.

Which probably isn't saying much.

But the story continues to make its rounds through the Internet, devolving from the tragedy of suicide to a political football. The Brady Campaign picked it up. So did, with one commenter stating it was "a masterpiece of anti-gun propaganda."

Another comment stated the U.S. ranks 39th in its suicide rate, which is true according to the World Health Organization. But that argument is a bit disingenuous with an implication that it's not so bad in the U.S. (If Wyoming's rate of 20.0 suicides per 100,000 population was compared to the worldwide rates, Wyoming would rank about 10th.)

At least one comment to my story referred to Japan's suicide rate as being much higher than in the U.S. even though its gun ownership rate is very low. Therefore, went the conclusion, guns don't matter.

This same argument has been made, and cited in press releases from the NRA and groups with similar views, in an article by Don Kates and Gary Mauser, "Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide? A Review of International and some Domestic Evidence" in the Spring 2007 issue of the "Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy." (This publication is not an official journal of the Harvard Law School, but of the Federalist Society of Law & Public Policy Studies.)

Kates and Mauser compared nations with the highest rates of suicide and the unavailability of firearms based on gun control policies, and concluded no correlation exists.

They've got a point, only if they look at the politics of gun control.

They flatly state the means don't matter because suicide is a mental health issue. (This argument would have been laughed at a century ago when suicide was mostly regarded as the result of a character flaw or demon possession.)

Of course, it's a mental health issue. Its also a spiritual issue, an economic issue, a family issue and a social issue.

It's also a means issue.

Kates and Mauser concede as much when they highlight the high rate of suicide among young Indian women born and raised on Fiji. Three-fourths of completed suicides there are a result of hanging, and most of the rest are from consuming the pesticide paraquat.

Kates and Mauser cite these means, but don't believe they're important.

The Harvard Injury Control Research Center does.

That's why they call their campaign "Means Matter." The Center does not dismiss the "whys" of mental health, personal issues, societal and other causes.

But it looks deeper at the "how" of the methods, which varies by country.

Many people in Great Britian committed suicide by putting their heads in ovens to die quickly from the high carbon monoxide content in coal gas; and people in Sri Lanka killed themselves with pesticides.

Suicides declined sharply in Great Britian in the 1960s and 1970s when natural gas was adopted for domestic use, and suicides in Sri Lanka declined when the government restricted more lethal pesticides.

Means Matter acknowledges people may try other methods to kill themselves besides firearms. Some do. Some don't.

There is a very critical, vulnerable window of time of when someone decides to kill him/herself and then acts on that decision. About 90 percent of those who survive a suicide attempt do not attempt again, according to Means Matter.

At the Star-Tribune, our interest in suicide wasn't other countries. They have their methods, and sometimes their societies have found ways to minimize lethality.

Our interest was in Wyoming.

And in Wyoming, people primarily use guns to kill themselves.

The Wyoming Survey & Analysis Center reports an average of 107 people a year completed suicides from 2007-2009. Of those completed suicides, 72 percent were accomplished by firearms.

Generally, only 1 percent or 2 percent of people attempt suicide with firearms, but firearms are 85 percent to 90 percent lethal. Other methods, even hanging, can give a person a window to reconsider and get help. Guns by their very nature are lethal. If they weren't, people wouldn't use them for self defense.

Guns kill. So do poisons, pills, ropes, cars and tall buildings.

So what do we do about it?

Regrettably with the firearms issue, the logical reductionism often used by pro- and anti-gun groups starts with "guns are used in suicide" to "suicide is bad" to "guns are bad" to "ban guns."

No one I talked to advocated banning guns. The sporting goods store owner who distributes free gun locks sure doesn't. No civic leaders in Wyoming would even consider the idea.

I don't, either. I grew up with guns. My dad was a life member of the NRA more than 50 years ago when it wasn't as cool as it is now. I shot smallbore in high school, and shot and coached for my university's rifle team.

On personal note, I'm also a survivor of a suicide attempt. I used pills and alcohol. If I had a gun, I wouldn't behere.

Preventing suicide by firearm involves many of the practices one finds in hunter safety and the NRA's Eddie Eagle programs. The precautions of storing ammo and firearms separately or using gun locks equals "banning guns."

This scourge of suicide by firearm has become a sad political debate instead of its recognition as a terrible personal and social tragedy needing solutions beyond a glib "it's a mental health issue."

And so I'll end with a question: If someone told you s/he was considering suicide and had immediate access to a gun, what would you do?

Call a mental health professional for an appointment? Look for antidepressants in the medicine cabinet? I doubt it.

I would hope you would dial 911. I also hope you would do whatever you could to take the gun away from the person as soon as possible.

In the name of God I hope so.

Reach Tom Morton at 307-266-0592, or at You can read his blog at and follow him on Twitter @GTMorton.


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