White House Outlines Strategy To Prevent Gun-Related Suicides

November 3, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

Yesterday, Nov. 3, the Biden Administration announced a set of three actions it will take to help prevent suicide by use of firearms, in an effort to curb one key aspect of the broader gun violence epidemic the country is facing. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), gun violence is among the leading causes of death for people of all ages in the U.S. While homicides and other violent crimes have increased in recent months, suicide has long been the most common outcome of gun violence, reports say.

While homicides and mass shootings tend to make the news, the majority of all gun deaths in the U.S. every year are actually suicides. The CDC said that in 2019 there were 39,707 firearm-related deaths nationwide, amounting to about 109 deaths per day. Six in ten of these were suicides.

In addition, guns are the leading method of suicide in the U.S., accounting for roughly half of all suicide deaths. Simply being able to access a firearm can triple the risk of death by suicide, per some estimates.

The new strategy from the White House focuses mainly on public awareness and education on the importance of safely storing firearms. It is estimated that 20% of American gun owners never lock up their firearms, with some studies pegging this number at nearly half (46%) of all gun owners. In states that require guns to be stored safely, there has been noted a 68% lower suicide rate, according to one 2015 study.

The reason for this focus is that reportedly suicide crises or the urge to commit suicide can be brief, so just removing access to a firearm during that period can actually save a person’s life.

The first prong of the new suicide prevention strategy focuses on military personnel and veterans by way of lethal means safety. This is not surprising when one takes into account that veterans accounted for 6,261 or 13.7% of all suicides among adults in the U.S. in 2019, the last year for which data is available, per the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Further, the average number of suicides per day among veterans rose 4.5% between 2001 and 2019.

“Lethal means safety,” the VA says, is an “intentional, voluntary practice to reduce one’s suicide risk by limiting access to” objects that “can be used to inflict self-directed violence” (e.g., medications, firearms, sharp instruments, etc.). The Departments of Defense (DOD), Health and Human Services (HHS), Homeland Security (DHS), and Justice (DOJ), and the Office of Emergency Medical Services within the Department of Transportation (DOT) have been directed to improve awareness, training, and education on lethal means safety, with the help of “expert guidance” from data.

The second part of the strategy is designed to make it easier for firearms owners to buy safe gun storage lockers or devices. The DOJ will soon issue a concrete rule on the “statutory obligations” of firearms dealers when it comes to selling gun storage or safety devices, the White House says. The federal government also aims to create maps to help individuals looking to store their guns safely outside their houses. 

And lastly, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) will be making available to all licensed federal firearms dealers a guide on the legal requirements for promoting the safety of individuals and the community, as well as measures they are “encouraged” to take. This includes educational material that can be passed onto customers, a reminder of the DOJ’s “zero-tolerance approach to willful violations of the Gun Control Act,” rules regarding background checks for all firearms transfers, what disqualifies someone from buying or owning a firearm; and how to limit the risk of firearms being lost or stolen.

As we wrote last month, there is currently no comprehensive federal law that mandates guns be stored safely at home, nor are there any federal minimum standards for gun storage or safety devices. An executive order from 2013 asked the Consumer Product Safety Commission to “review the effectiveness of gun locks and gun safes, including existing voluntary industry standards, and take any steps that may be warranted to improve the standards,” but no concrete legislation has emerged from this.

The 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act makes it illegal for a gun manufacturer, dealer, or importer to sell or transfer a handgun unless the recipient is “provided with a secure gun storage or safety device.” It does not, however, mandate that the recipient use the security device. This provision does not apply to transfers or sales between federal firearms licensees or private sellers, nor for federal, state, or local law enforcement officers or agencies.

On a state level, the laws and requirements vary. The broad types of safe storage laws include firearms being kept locked up; dealer sales including locks; private sales including locks; and minimum standards for locks. Individual cities like San Francisco and New York City have their own rules for gun storage.

Many states also have child access prevention (CAP) laws. These are mostly retroactive laws that make a person criminally or civilly liable if they fail to store guns safely away from children. One study by the RAND Corporation found CAP laws might help lower gun suicide and accidental shooting rates in the states that have them. Another estimated that, among children aged 14–17, CAP laws lowered overall suicide rates by around 8% and firearm suicide rates by 11%.

Currently, 27 states and D.C. have some form of CAP law. CAP laws vary in strength and penalties for violating them. In California, a person is criminally liable if a minor is “likely to gain access to a negligently stored firearm,” regardless of whether the minor actually does access it. On the other end of the spectrum, in Georgia, a parent or guardian is just prohibited from directly giving a minor a firearm. 

Gun violence costs America an estimated $300 billion a year in hospital bills, lost productivity, insurance, etc., according to some research reports.