Suicide is a well-known problem for Alaska Natives. We spend a lot of time and money looking for solutions to the problem. Are firearms the culprit? And if so the question is: how far are we willing to go in order to prevent suicide?
There have been some interesting studies published recently looking at gun violence in America. One surprising statistic is that suicide with a firearm is far more common than murder with a firearm in America. Between 2003-2005, Alaska saw 611 violent deaths, with 69% suicide, 19% homicide, 7% undetermined intent, 3% unintentional firearms death and 1% legal intervention according to the National Violent Death Reporting System. Alaska Natives in particular have had a consistently high suicide rate for the last five decades. We often approach suicide prevention from the causal perspective. But how are people committing suicides? According to the UAA Justice Forum:
The method of suicide varied from state to state, but firearm use was the most frequent, with males more likely to commit suicide with a firearm, and females by drug overdose (poisoning). In Alaska, 60 percent of suicides involved firearms.
This is precisely why we must talk about the issue of suicide in the context of firearms. Suicide has touched the lives of many Americans, and is something most rural Alaskans know all too well. Harvard University has a program called Means Matter which exists to bring attention to the topic of firearms and its relation to suicide.
Every U.S. study that has examined the relationship has found that access to firearms is a risk factor for suicides. Firearm owners are not more suicidal than non-firearm owners; rather, their suicide attempts are more likely to be fatal.
I have considered both suicide and murder in my life, when I think back to those incidences, there was a common factor: my Winchester 9422M.
Image courtesy of icollector.com
I was 15 years old and my step-dad had gone to prison the year before. So, there we were in Palmer: disconnected from our culture, father in prison, on welfare back when food stamps were actually paper (terribly embarrassing for a teen), not doing well in school and generally a wreck. Often when people tell young people not to commit suicide I feel cynical because I remember clearly what it was like and I hardly blame myself for wanting a way out.
I am now 35 years old, happily married, with wonderful kids, and a good dog. I served in the Marines and finished school with the GI bill. My career is beginning and I am blessed with a wonderful family and friends. My life is good, but how could 15-year-old me have known it would turn out this way? The short answer is that I couldn’t have known, and I often think and worry about others who are in that same boat. I worry that we lose some of our most insightful and intelligent young people to suicide because they are intelligent enough to see the world for what it is, but do not yet have the wisdom to know it will not always be that way. At that time, I would sometimes sit in my room with that gun in my mouth thinking about suicide. I can still remember the taste.
I have had this weapon since I was 10 or so. A lever action 22 mag that was used mainly for seal hunting by my father before it was given to me. I still have it, sitting in pieces from my last attempt to repair it and it is still in the same place it’s always been – my bedroom.
So one day in 1992 I got into a fight with my mom and decided I was just going to end my life. I stormed into the room, put the gun into my mouth and my mom burst in and wrestled the gun away from me. When I think about that moment my heart rate rises and I’m scared for that kid and then I feel sorrow for my mom. As a parent now, I just cannot imagine losing my boys to suicide and too many of you already know that feeling.
Fast forward years later. My dad is out of prison and I have a chip on my shoulder. He came back to our family expecting to be the man of the house; the problem was I was used to that position and I did not respect him at all. (The police in Palmer from the era knew me well and I have fond memories of them. Despite our constant run-ins they treated me pretty well overall.) My dad and I fought a lot, and one of my strangest memories was when I realized that fist fighting your dad was not an America rite of passage. I was amazed when my friend told me he had never been in a physical fight with his dad.
One day, my dad said something to me, I can’t even remember what it was, but I decided that was enough. I ran back to the bedroom, grabbed my Winchester and was going to kill him. As I charged through the hallway my mom threw herself at me, grabbed the rifle and wrestled with me for it begging me to stop. My dad is still alive. That was the day I sent him to the hospital when I hit him in the head with a metal stopwatch I threw at him, which is decidedly better than the bullet I intended for him.
What those two incidences have in common was my choice of weapon: that damn Winchester that always sat in my room loaded. Would it have been different if I had to unlock the rifle safe, retrieve the ammo, load the weapon, then kill myself or my father? I do not know the answer to that, but my inclination is yes it would have made a difference. The sheer convenience of the weapon combined with its deadliness and my impulse was a terrible combination, and I feel lucky to be here sharing this with you. But it wasn’t luck that saved me, it was my mom.
Simple Steps Can Make a Difference
The New York Times recently published an excellent piece by Scott Anderson on suicide that I highly recommend.
Humans are lazy creatures – it’s in our nature. We always look for the easiest way to accomplish something; this is the hallmark of all species on our planet. Sometimes the least inconvenience can stop us from doing something.
As the article explains suicide comes in many forms, and we struggle to understand why it happens or how to prevent it. Reading Anderson’s article I began to realize that we have the potential to stem the suicide epidemic in Alaska. Anderson points out that guns only account for 1% of all suicide attempts in America. What is different about them is the extremely high success rate for suicide by firearm, which translates into firearms being a key component in suicide completion. That 54% of suicide completions are with a firearm while only accounting for 1% of the attempts is a staggering number. Let’s explore this further before we come to any conclusions.
There are a couple examples Anderson uses to illustrate his point, but I’m going to focus on the Ellington Bridge. Firearm suicides and jumping suicides are related in their lethalness, and impulsivity.
There are two bridges that span Rock Creek in Washington, DC: the Ellington and the Taft Bridge. The Ellington was the more popular of the two to commit suicide from. After three people killed themselves in a 10-day-span, local groups advocated for a suicide barrier on the bridge and got it. With the Taft Bridge being equally deadly and only yards away from the Ellington, what do you suppose happened? One would think that jumpers would simply use the Taft Bridge to commit suicide. After all, the Taft averages about two suicides per year on its own. But that’s not what happened.
After the suicide barrier was erected, the suicides at the Ellington Bridge dropped to zero. The rates for the Taft Bridge remained unchanged. Why?
The interesting difference between the two bridges, and the suicide rate at each, was the height of the rail. The Taft has a railing that is chest-high, while the Ellington’s rail was only waist-high. But, can that small difference really affect whether or not someone commits suicide? How do we know that they did not just kill themselves another way? In this scenario, we can’t know for sure, but enterprising researchers found another way to check this out.
The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco provided the next example used. An estimated 2000 people have killed themselves using the Golden Gate Bridge. Richard Seiden from UC Berkeley pulled the names of 515 people who got pulled from the bridge and tracked them down to see how many of them went on to kill themselves in a 1978 study. He found that 90% of them went on living their lives after the attempt. That dark impulse to kill their selves had come and gone.
A large factor in gun-related suicides is impulsivity which is higher in young people, higher still in men, and even higher when combined with another factor – alcohol. Alcohol use and drug abuse were reported in 40% of all suicides according to the UAA Justice Forum. An American Journal of Psychiatry study found that aggressive/impulsive behavior and alcohol were two independent predictors of suicide among the young men studied. Alcohol plays an interesting role in suicide. I always thought alcohol reduced your inhibition, in myopia theory (read part 3 for the pertinent part) alcohol instead narrows your view so what is right in front of you becomes more important than anything else. I didn’t need alcohol for that I was willing to kill myself to stop my immediate pain. I was willing to kill my father because he said something that made me mad. If alcohol inhibits that even further one can easily see why it plays a factor in so many suicides.
When I attempted suicide, it was an impulsive decision that I acted on. Had my mom not been there, I would most likely be dead. It was the same with my intention to murder my father: I was impulsive and angry. I did not attempt suicide or murder again, and I am here writing this piece.
What We Can Do
If you need to be convinced further, I highly suggest reading Anderson’s article. My personal story affirms this for me, and the statistics seem to confirm it solidly enough for me to want to take concrete action on this subject. We also know that Alaska Native men between the ages of 20 and 24 have the sad distinction of having the highest suicide rate in the state. This is not the distinction we want or need in our communities.
We also know how accessible firearms are in many homes, especially in rural Alaska. We grow up around firearms, because they are used for subsistence. Unfortunately, they are also very effective tools for committing suicide. The Means Matter website lists Alaska as one of the States with double the firearms suicide rate. Someone who attempts suicide with poisoning is 40 times more likely to live than someone who attempts it with a firearm.
People kill themselves for many reasons. Some do it after a bad breakup, others because of sexual assault, or being molested; others see no future for themselves. The reason people kill themselves is not a mystery. There might be an easy way to help reduce it.
Since there are so many different reasons for committing suicide, it makes it hard to pinpoint all possible causes that can lead from impulse to action. So the most reasonable short-term course of action, if we are serious about this, is to focus on the mechanics of it. Firearms are the number one way that young men commit suicide and poisoning is the number one method used by women. Hanging is another popular method (especially in the north), but in the context of solutions is the hardest to prevent.
We often talk about solutions, but how far are we willing to go? Will you lock up your firearms and separate the ammunition to save a life? After I read Anderson’s article, I got up and walked over to where I keep my handguns. I had a Ruger Mark II pistol and a Taurus .357 both loaded because of my paranoia. I unloaded them, hid the ammo and I’m going to buy gun locks for them both. My kids are only four and two, but someday one might be an angry 14 year-old-boy. I don’t need those weapons so easily accessible. I’ll buy a Taser, some mace and some throwing stars for home defense, assuming my dog doesn’t get the intruder first. That’s what I’m willing to do, and frankly I’m amazed I was this complacent about it. This deserves consideration on a larger scale.
I am not willing to ask the state to do anything about it; I am not a huge advocate of state solutions especially when it comes to Alaska Native issues. Instead I ask what we are willing to do on a local level. Would potentially saving a life be worth the slight inconvenience of locking up our weapons? Cost is a factor: not everyone can afford a gun safe. We use our guns for hunting and that is extremely important, but they also don’t need to be instantly accessible for that.
I realize that suicide has many factors, and this would do nothing to stop the dysfunction in many communities, but it could drastically lower the suicide rate. Every time I go home, even when it’s for a funeral, my family is happy and loving. There is nowhere on earth like rural Alaska, even though the way it is often described in the news makes one think our communities are a cesspool of misery. I assure you, they are not. What this will do is give us some breathing room. We can’t effectively advocate for ourselves when we are constantly dealing with trauma, and the long-term solutions take time by their very nature. Restricting access to firearms can make a big difference.
We have an opportunity to try to do something effective to lower the suicide rate in Alaska. If nothing else, please separate your ammo from your firearms. Studies have shown even keeping a weapon unloaded with the ammunition in another room can be an effective deterrent for suicide.
To be perfectly clear, I am advocating for weapons to be locked up separate from the ammunition. In addition to that I believe any medication that could potentially be used to commit suicide should also be locked away. How this gets accomplished is up to the communities themselves. We have already had attempts to accomplish this in Alaska. In Marayaaq where my aunt lives the city provided gun safes for the residents there. There have been other pushes for the same thing but without each and every single one of us doing our part it does very little good. This includes us as individuals as well as our leadership.
I also want to be perfectly clear that this would not be the sole solution. There is a lot of work yet to be done on this subject of suicide, and a lot of good work already being done. None of that should be ignored. The Christian Science Monitor reported the suicide rate in Japan is on the decline and that many credit the government’s actions to address it. That is an important part of the conversation and we need to address the reason why people choose to take their life,
I am going to have my detractors and that is fine. We are willing to prohibit alcohol in some of our communities and plenty of people do not like that. I am 100% advocating for this because it hurts my heart every time I hear about a suicide. I don’t think this will stop all of the suicides, but it may have a good chance of making a large difference, and that alone is important. Suicide has a circular aspect to it, because the event has the potential to inspire other suicides, and definitely impacts the family, loved ones and the community, which potentially leads to more dysfunction. So community leaders, regional leaders, individuals: we are faced with this question. What are we willing to do to stop suicide?