As a college student who has never handled a gun, firearms play an unusual role in my education. Last spring my roommate came into my room to show me a social media post about a shooting planned to occur on our campus the next day. By the time I got up the following morning, text alerts were sent to all students by my university addressing the shooting threat. I called to my mom to ease her stress. She told me there was no reason for me to go to campus that day and I should stay home to avoid the risk. I shrugged her off, telling her I had a midterm that week and needed to go to my lecture because we were preparing for a test. While older generations might find this alarming, it was just another day on a college campus for me. The reality I face as an American student in the 21st century is that the looming possibility of gun violence is constantly in the atmosphere.
While a shooting thankfully never occurred that day, guns have still become a familiar pillar upon which my education stands. Far too often, fellow students die by suicide, and this problem is not unique to my college campus. Utah ranks the fifth-highest state in the nation for suicide rates with shocking ratio of 23.52 deaths per 100,000. The disturbing increase has transformed suicide in Utah from not only a mental health issue, but also a public health epidemic. This lead Gov. Gary Herbert to create a youth suicide task force to try and understand why Utahns have died by suicide at unprecedented rates, but both conclusions and solutions have fallen short.
What is often missing from the discussion surrounding suicide preventions is a conversation about gun control. Many pro-gun activists contest this, claiming that since there are many other means to commit suicide, gun control would not reduce rates. However, there is evidence that gun control would reduce suicide deaths, as the majority of people who survive a suicide attempt do not end up dying by suicide in the future. In fact, nine out of ten people who attempt suicide and survive will not go on to die by suicide at a later date. Suicide attempts often stem from what mental health professionals term “temporary crisis,” and guns rarely give individuals a second opportunity.
When gun control becomes a topic of conversation, the focus is usually mass shootings, which has become a extremely partisan discussion. While it is true that the U.S. has more mass shootings than any other developed country, even when adjusted for population, mass shooting are not responsible for the majority of gun deaths in America. When you look at gun demographics in the US, an average of 92 people are killed each day by gun violence. According to Vox, if you break that statistic down, roughly 30 deaths are homicide and only 1.5 of them are mass shootings. The majority of gun deaths–58 people per day–are suicides. The remainder of the percentage is made up of accidental shootings, police actions, and undetermined incidents. These numbers don’t compare to other developed countries–the U.S. is undeniably the highest when it comes to suicide by gun. The connection should seem simple: a gun is the catalyst that turns a temporary crisis into a fatality.
As a result of growing concerns regarding school shootings and Utah’s spike in suicide rates, there has been a shift in tackling school safety. Following the Parkland, Florida shooting last February, Utah lawmakers created the Utah School Safety Commission. The commission recently issued a report detailing the development of school threat-assessment teams and expanding access to qualified mental health professionals. Also, this past legislative session, Rep. Stephen Handy introduced a “Red-Flag Bill,” which never made it out of committee. The proposed bill would have allowed for family members of individuals who demonstrate severe risk to themselves or others to petition the court for a temporary confiscation of firearms. While these are commonly made and important suggestions, they are not nearly enough.
The American College Health Association says that one in five students are impacted by anxiety or depression. When you combine that with the pressures of education that can lead to temporary crisis around every corner, we can understand how suicide has become the second-leading cause of death among 20 to 24-year-olds. Guns only make the pressure and stress of university more deadly. While mass shootings have become a grossly political issue, suicide prevention mechanisms should not be. Without making gun legislation a key part of suicide prevention strategies, suicide rates in Utah will continue to be unacceptably high. Utahns should not call on elected officials to pass gun regulations as partisan representatives, but as concerned parents and students who want safety in our schools, on our campuses, and in times of crisis.
Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts can call the 24-Hour National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Utah also has crisis lines statewide, and the SafeUT app offers immediate crisis intervention services for youths and a confidential tip program.
Natalie Beal is a Policy Intern with Alliance for a Better Utah.