As suicide rate increases, gun safety advocates call for more firearm regulations

Gun Rights

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For 24/7 mental health support in English or Spanish, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s free help line at 800-662-4357. You can also reach a trained crisis counselor through the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988.

The number of Texans who used a gun to take their life last year was the highest since at least 1999, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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CDC researchers say multiple factors likely contributed to a similar increase nationally, including the COVID-19 pandemic that might have exacerbated risk factors for suicide like social isolation, relationship stressors and substance use.

In Texas, gun safety and mental health advocates point to another factor: Easy access to guns.

“We’re still lacking critical legislation,” said Bobby Watson, human rights fellow at Texas Impact, an interfaith group that supports laws aimed at reducing gun violence. “This is the fruit of us not doing anything.”

At least 2,644 people in Texas who killed themself last year used a firearm — approximately a rate of 9 per 100,000 Texans, CDC figures show. The total number of such deaths and the rate at which they occur in Texas are much higher than in 1999, when 1,224 people died such deaths at a rate of approximately 6 per 100,000.

Nationally, the rate of people using a gun in their suicide reached a record high last year when there were approximately 27,000 such deaths, according to a CDC report this month.

Overall, the rate across the country increased to 8.1 per 100,000 Americans — the highest level since at least 1968, when the CDC began tracking the statistic. Data for Texas between 1968 and 1999 was not immediately available.

The increase in deaths nationally was greater among American Indian and Alaska Native individuals, which researchers said “might reflect systematic inequities, such as in mental health care access or unemployment.”

Gun safety advocates say the CDC’s report highlighted a need for policies that disarm individuals experiencing a crisis and offered an opportunity to raise awareness about safe gun storage. The National Rifle Association, Texas Gun Rights and the Texas State Rifle Association did not respond to interview requests for this story.

Texas has some of the most lax gun laws in the nation. The state does not require a person to obtain a permit before carrying a weapon in public, nor does it have any “waiting period” laws that create a buffer between the time someone purchases a firearm and when they receive it — a window that could be crucial for a person experiencing a mental health crisis.

“With Texas now permitting permitless carry with no background [check], it can have an adverse effect on those who are contemplating suicide,” said Lyssette Galvan, public policy director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Texas.

CDC data shows that the number of suicides involving a firearm in Texas has increased for years. In 2018, 2,263 people died by gun suicide compared to the roughly 2,600 last year, according to provisional numbers. To June of this year, 1,057 individuals had died of gun suicide in Texas.

Military veterans have been identified as a particularly vulnerable group. More than 1.5 million veterans call Texas home, the largest population in one state.

While the state does not lead the nation in suicides by firearms it could certainly do more, said Sarah Burd-Sharps, senior director of research at Everytown for Gun Safety.

She said lawmakers could pass a law that would allow relatives to petition a civil court to at least temporarily stop someone experiencing a mental health crisis from accessing a gun. Lawmakers could also pass a “waiting period” law like ones that exist in 11 other states, Burd-Sharps said.

“It’s not a hardship to ask someone to wait a few days,” she said. “And to have the time to reconsider a very spontaneous and tragic act.”

Texas lawmakers have long resisted new restrictions on gun storage or access, but Texas Gun Sense, a group that is trying to prevent gun injuries and deaths, counted at least one victory during this year’s regular legislative session. A new school safety law includes a provision that provides schools with safe gun storage information that is meant to be sent home to parents and guardians.

Nicole Golden, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, said she’s already seen school districts distributing such materials.

“It’s really a huge measure honestly. … To have been able to establish this policy and ensure that Texas parents are receiving safe gun storage information is really significant,” Golden said. “It’s hard to measure prevention. You don’t know. Will it save a life? Will someone make the smart choice to secure their firearm? We don’t know that but we really hope and believe that it’s possible.”

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