This op-ed originally ran in the Boulder Daily Camera on Feb. 6, 2021
It’s winter. Our days are short, nights long.
This season, there are many daytime shadows as well: political chaos, a deadly pandemic, economic uncertainly, restrictions that separate us physically. Mental health is challenged, especially for those isolated and subject to depression.
Former Sen. Cory Gardner reported last May that there is a suicide in Colorado every seven hours. The spike in gun sales resulted in unprecedented numbers of guns at home; unsecured firearms enhance their availability to those at risk.
We have ample evidence that many firearms are not well-protected. The yearly average of gun violence deaths among children the past five years is 3,062, 1,129 attributed to suicide. No children were issued licenses for the guns that killed them; but 4.6 million children and teens live in homes where loaded guns are kept unsecured. Safe storage is a reasonable idea most everyone in the gun- owning community (including ourselves) subscribes to in principle. However, it is not mandated in Colorado.
But this isn’t your problem, right? You feel just fine and have never had suicidal thoughts. Terrific! Your firearms are carefully locked away. Wonderful! Perhaps you don’t even own a gun. But there are those in our communities we care about and whom every society needs to protect. It turns out that protection is spotty.
Youth is our foremost at-risk group. Prior to COVID-19, we already had large increases in gun suicide among young people in the United States; the rate among those 10-24 years old more than doubled between 2008 and 2019. Then consider: 15% of youth in Colorado report that they have thought about committing suicide.
All these assessments were made before COVID-19 and the 2020 surge of gun sales. What might the numbers be now? We know gun homicides are spiking and gun accidents have increased, but can only guess at suicide numbers since these are reported later.
At the opposite end of the age continuum are the elderly. Health risks dictate limiting their contacts to avoid contracting the virus; the elderly become even more isolated and subject to depression than usual. So, it’s no wonder that we’re already seeing increased numbers of gun suicides for age 70 and above.
Also at high risk for gun suicide are new owners, who swamped the gun stores for whatever was available. Stay-at-home orders meant few of them have had access to weapons training and education about safe storage practices.
According to a recent New England Journal of Medicine repot, the suicide risk for new gun owners is heightened: “In this study we found an elevated risk of suicide among a large sample of first-time handgun owners. This risk was driven by a much higher rate of suicide by firearm — not by a higher rate of suicide by other methods.”
Finally, our veterans are more likely to own guns; they experience a 1.5 times higher rate of gun suicide than the general population. U.S. Rep. Jason Crow notes, “when the yellow ribbons of Veterans Day come down, vets are still dealing with the pain of war and many aren’t getting the help they need.”
The concern impacting all these groups is the finality of firearms in suicides. The lethality of those weapons ensures that more than 90% of gun suicide first attempts will be deadly. Fortunately, those who are unsuccessful in a suicide attempt seldom try again. But for gun suicides, there are precious few second chances.
Despite these risks, there are ways we personally can mitigate them. The National Rifle Association and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence offer similar tips: Store guns and ammunition so that they are not accessible. Install trigger locks, padlocked gun cases and safes.
And, we can protect these vulnerable communities by mandating safe storage for all gun purchases. A bill will be offered to the Colorado Legislature in 2021 that requires gun buyers to store weapons safely and gun dealers to sell locking devices for guns sold.
We urge you to follow and support that bill by letting your legislators know that, along with 71% of registered Colorado voters, you’re aware of the need for mandated safe storage and ask them to vote for the bill.
Suicides are not inevitable. They can be prevented by sensible restrictions on gun storage, such as those already enacted by 18 states.
We can support both gun safety and the Second Amendment. We must bring some light into this dark winter.
Mark Udall is a former U.S. senator for Colorado, and he lives in Eldorado Springs.
Myra Isenhart, Ph.D., is with Colorado Ceasefire Outreach and lives in Arapahoe County.