Guns and Suicide

VTDigger column May 29,2019

S.169, mandates a 24-hour waiting period for the purchase of a handgun in Vermont It’s sitting on the Governor’s desk awaiting his signature… or not.

The express purpose of the bill is to dissuade one type of suicide. Opponents see it is an attack on their absolutist reading of the Second Amendment. Some supporters see it as a first step in reining in the gun lobby’s relentless marketing of weapons. In any case, it’s been contentious. The Governor seems skittish about signing it into law, and the legislature doesn’t have the votes to overturn a veto.

A deep dive last June by VTDigger’s Mike Faher shed light on Vermont’s actual suicide statistics. Our suicide rate is 35% higher than the national average and the gun is our instrument of choice.

Some highlights from a recent report cited in Mike’s article:

  • Suicide is the eighth-leading cause of death in Vermont, the 10th-leading cause nationally and guns are used in 59 percent of Vermont’s suicides.
  • Vermont’s suicide rate was 18.9 per 100,000 people in 2016, significantly higher than the U.S. rate of 13.9 per 100,000.
  • Males are four times more likely than females to die by suicide in Vermont, which is worse than in the U.S. as a whole where men are three times more likely to take their own lives.
  • In the 10-14 age group, Vermont’s suicide rate is lower than the nation’s. But “Vermont is higher … than the U.S. in almost every (other) age category,”
  • There is a particularly large disparity among older adults: From 2012-2016, the suicide rate for Vermonters aged 70 to 74 was 25 per 100,000 people; the national rate for that age group was 15 per 100,000.
  • Within Vermont, there’s also a big disparity among counties. For the years 2012-14, “Lamoille County’s suicide death rate is almost five times higher than the county with the lowest suicide death rate, which is Grand Isle.”

Growing up in Lamoille County in the ’50s, it was common to hear that “Vermont had more cows than people” and “the highest per capita suicide rate in the country. February was “rope and rafters” month, when the fierce cold, the scarcity of sunlight, and the exhaustion of hill farming took its greatest toll.

But statistics don’t tell the full story and the proposed gun law only addresses part of a larger problem.

Despite myriad causes, I would suggest there are kinds of suicide. S.69 addresses one of the three, the impulsive suicide – the sudden decision to end one’s life and to do so on the spot, silencing any inner voice arguing for survival. The absence of a means to do so incurs delay and deliberation. A handy gun makes it easier.

I’m a water jumper. I know this dangerous impulse. Several times in my youth standing on a cliff or a bridge, I’ve looked into the water below to try and assess its depth. The next second I’m airborne. I’ve been lucky.

The second type is the deliberately planned suicide. This usually involves carefully thought out timing, place, means, and perhaps consideration of loved ones. The commitment is firm and impulse is absent.

The third and most prevalent type of suicide – which is absent from statistics – is the passive suicide, often called “suicide by lifestyle.” Here the person abandons any hope of a manageable life, settles into a chair or onto a sidewalk and turns to their drug of choice: alcohol, drugs, junk food, or any other self-destructive substance that ends in illness and death. They die in an ambulance or on the sidewalk.

Blues Singer Leroy Carr summed up this type of suicide in his classic 1934 Suicide Blues.

To our detriment, we don’t try to count these “deaths of despair” as suicides. To do so would require us to ask how and why our fellow citizens are finding life intolerable. We’d have to do more than delay the purchase of a handgun for 24 hours or ban addictive substances. We’d have to confront, economic despair, homelessness, racism, abuse, and inadequate mental illness treatment options… do the heavy lifting.

Dissuading the impulsive suicide by requiring a waiting period to acquire a handgun is a good first step to discouraging the suicidal impulse. But we must ask ourselves what in our society is driving the spike in suicides here at home and in the nation at large. Can’t we try to be a kinder, gentler nation and focus our vast wealth on alleviating the stresses that lead someone to end their life?

Just as the war on drugs – interdiction – did nothing to stem the flow of addiction, making handguns harder to get will barely dent the spike in suicides.