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Studies: Gun laws lower suicide rates

West Virginia has few gun laws and one of the highest rates of suicides involving a gun in the country. Two recent studies suggest that rate could be lowered by enacting gun legislation, including adding steps between the decision to purchase a handgun and possessing one.

In 2013 in West Virginia, 70 percent of suicides involved firearms, compared to 51.5 percent nationally, according to one of the studies. Only Mississippi, at 72 percent, ranked higher than West Virginia for percentage of suicides by firearm. Three other states, Alabama, Alaska and Louisiana, tied for second with West Virginia.

In one of the studies, published online on Aug. 13 for members of the American Public Health Association ahead of print in the American Journal of Public Health, Drs. Michael Anestis and Joye Anestis found that universal background checks, requirements that privately owned handguns be locked in some circumstances and open-carry regulations were associated with lower overall suicide rates, lower firearms suicide rates and a lower proportion of suicide deaths resulting from firearms.

Information on suicide was obtained from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention database on fatal and nonfatal injuries while information on state-level gun laws was obtained from a Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence database.

After controlling for the percentage of each state under the poverty line, older than 25, with a college degree, who were white, the median age of state residents and population density, the researchers found an overall suicide rate of 6.14 per 100,000 in states requiring waiting periods, versus 8.51 per 100,000 in states with no such requirement. For states with universal background checks, it was 12.45 versus 15.97. For gun locks legislation, it was 11.04 versus 15.12. For states with restrictions on the open carrying of handguns, it was 12.96 versus 15.99.

The researchers noted that using a firearm is an especially lethal method of attempting suicide, with reported lethality rates between 82.5 percent and 92 percent.

“Because suicide by firearm is almost always deadly, these restrictions deter the use of one of the most deadly instruments of self-harm,” the researchers wrote. “Furthermore, some [researchers have] proposed that easy access to firearms and exposure to deadly means could enable an individual to quickly move from thinking about suicide to enacting suicidal behavior. Limiting access and exposure then might slow down this transition in many individuals, thereby increasing the number of opportunities to intervene and mitigate risk. In short, these data make it evident that legislating access and exposure to firearms saves lives.”

Another study, published online April 16 for members of the American Public Health Association ahead of print in the American Journal of Public Health, found that states requiring permits to purchase handguns, registration to purchase handguns or licenses to own handguns had lower overall suicide rates, lower firearms suicide rates and a lower proportion of suicide deaths resulting from firearms.

West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources spokeswoman Allison Adler provided some statistics that show how pervasive suicides by firearm are in the state.

Of 1,359 firearm deaths from 2009 to 2013, 1,029 were suicides, according to data from the West Virginia Health Statistics Center.

There were 1,487 suicide deaths from 2009 to 2013 in West Virginia, putting the state 15th-highest in the country. Of those, 1,011 involved firearms.

There were 10.91 suicides by firearm per 100,000 people during that time, compared to 16.05 total suicides per 100,000 people.

West Virginia has not enacted any of the laws that were studied in either study, and it’s not likely that the state will, if a conversation with Speaker of the House Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, is any indication.

While he did say he was open to legislative suggestions on improvements to the mental health system, Armstead said he thinks people who think gun control is the “answer” to suicide deaths are “missing the point.”

“I just don’t see it as the solution,” he said.

Asked whether stricter laws might not be an answer but could be one part of a multi-faceted approach to the issue, Armstead said he favors concentrating on improvements to the mental health system.

If someone wants to die by suicide, “there are a number of different ways they can do that,” he said. “And if we’re just simply trying to take one of those ways away, we’re not getting at the core issue.”

Michael Anestis, lead researcher on the two studies previously mentioned and a suicide researcher at the University of Southern Mississippi, disagrees. He notes that suicide prevention efforts like bridge barriers have been successful in reducing suicide rates in an area.

“People don’t just go to the next bridge,” Anestis said. “If you make this difficult thing that much harder, they tend not to do it.”

Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, did not return a call for comment.

As a Mississippi resident, Anestis said, he understands environments that are not friendly to gun legislation, so, in the absence of gun-control legislation, he advocates for education.

That could involve requiring hunting and concealed-carry instructors to talk about suicide risk factors in their classes, for example, or teaching family members to offer to temporarily hold guns for suicidal people, he said. He emphasized that those conversations should happen among all gun-owners, not just those who are actively suicidal.

“The message becomes, ‘If you’re going to own a gun, you need to understand suicide risk and you need to commit to safety, not when you’re feeling bad, but when you’re feeling good, so when that bad moment comes, you’ve already got a plan in place,’ ” Anestis said.

Those who already are in crisis should call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Reach Erin Beck at erin.beck@wvgazette.com, 304-348-5163, Facebook.com/erinbeckwv or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter.

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