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One way to prevent suicides: limit access to guns

Guns on display at a store in Auburn, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Guns on display at a store in Auburn, Maine.

More than half of gun-related deaths in the U.S. are suicides. But James Russell, a biology professor at Georgia Gwinnett College, says that most people do not want to accept how common it is. "People that haven't been through this just want to bury their head in the sand," Russell says. "They don't want to hear it."

Russell's father took his own life when Russell was 15. He died two days after he turned a gun on himself, which gave Russell time to see and talk to his dad one last time. Russell recalls seeing him in the hospital bed, holding his hand, and his father speaking to James one last time. "He said you don't understand. And then after a pause, he said it was an accident."

Research says that's true: Most people who attempt suicide only contemplate the decision for an hour.

Now, Russell facilitates support groups at the nonprofit Everytown Survivor Network, helping people who have lost loved ones to gun violence. He says these groups, more than anything, have helped him process his father's death and the way he died.

Does access to guns increase suicides?

Mass shootings may garner the most attention, but suicides account for most gun deaths in America. Catherine Barber, a researcher at Harvard Injury Control Research Center, says once people recognize suicide as the most common form of gun violence, they're better positioned to protect against the risk: they can check for warning signs and remove the means for impulsive actions.

"You just need to buy the time to find the proper treatment for that feeling of suicidality — nobody is meant to suffer in the way that you might be suffering, and people do recover," Barber tells NPR's Michel Martin.

In 2009, Barber began working on the Gun Shop Project, which asks gun shop owners, firearms instructors and gun rights advocates to act as "lifesavers." The initiative encourages gun stores and firearms dealers to display and distribute materials with suicide prevention tips that include storing ammunition in another person's home or asking a friend to change the combination on their gun locker. "You want to take kind of a 'friends don't let friends drive drunk approach' to guns and suicide," Barber says.

Barber tells Morning Edition that she and her team focus on firearms because of their lethal potential. 82% of suicide attempts are successful because of guns. "Precisely what people value about guns is what makes them so dangerous in a suicide attempt," Barber says.

Studies of those who attempt suicide and survive indicate the decision to take one's own life doesn't always involve lengthy planning. One study of participants who survived an attempt found that half of them considered it for less then 10 minutes. Barber stresses that such attempts are often preceded by long battles with depression or another mental health concern. She wants to remove the ability of people who have been struggling long-term to act on a short-term feeling.

Resistance to gun safety training and permits

Barber says she finds that gun enthusiasts will listen, but may not always embrace changes in the law or training protocols.

Mark Pennack is the president of Maryland Carry, a gun rights group that is lobbying the state legislature to reject proposed requirements for firearms dealers to distribute information about firearms as a suicide risk factor. "Guns don't cause somebody to want to kill themselves," Pennack argues.

Even though she is a gun safety advocate, Barber understands the concerns about legislating change. "People who value gun rights feel under attack and when forced to do something often will assume that this is simply one more attack and an over-step by a nanny state."

But Russell rejects the argument that guns aren't a major contributor to suicide. "There's very little turning back when you use a gun." He believes that working toward safer gun policies will help avert similar tragedies. "Guns make temporary problems terminal."

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text9 8 8 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

Jan Johnson, Miranda Kennedy and Ally Schweitzer contributed editing. contributed to this story

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