Thursday, August 30, 2018

Gun ownership most significant factor in higher rural suicide rates; Bend Bulletin looks at Oregon's situation

The suicide rate is 50 percent higher in Oregon's rural counties than in their urban counterparts. Researchers have tried to figure out the reasons for the discrepancy for years, and though some of the reasons they posited, such as despair, poverty, and lack of mental-health services play a role, the most significant factor seems to be the far higher number of guns in rural areas, reports Markian Hawryluk of The Bulletin in Bend, just east of the Cascade Mountains, the state's urban-rural divide.

More than 80 percent of gun deaths in Oregon are suicides, exceeding the nationwide rate of about 66 percent. In 2017, more than 400 Oregonians died from firearm suicides, about half in rural areas, Hawryluk reports. Guns are the weapon of choice; Oregon had 762 total suicides in 2017, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Suicide-rate disparities between urban and rural areas all but vanish when firearm suicides are removed from the picture, according to several studies. "The fact is, even more than depression or substance abuse, the strongest predictor of how likely a person is to die from suicide is a gun in the home," Don Gross, former president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, wrote in a recent report.

Hawryluk notes that gun owners are not more likely to attempt suicide, but if they do attempt suicide with a gun they're much more likely to die; only 10 percent of people survive such an attempt, compared to a 97 percent survival rate for those who swallow pills or cut themselves.

Trying to restrict guns has only led to a greater political divide. "That’s spawned a new approach to preventing firearm suicides. Public health proponents are now reaching out to gun enthusiasts to try to find common ground," Hawryluk reports. "They are seeking to penetrate one of the most widespread subcultures in the United States, to gain their trust and to learn how bitter rivals can work together towards a common goal: keeping gun owners alive."

Last year the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Shooting Sports Foundation tried just that, developing suicide prevention materials to be distributed across the nation to gun shops, shooting ranges and other places guns are likely to be present, Hawryluk reports.

"Guns are such an integral part of the social fabric, particularly in rural America, that many have come to believe reducing access to lethal means will not be accomplished through decree or legislative mandate," Hawryluk reports. "Instead, they are appealing to at-risk individuals and their families to temporarily store their guns outside of their homes or otherwise make those firearms inaccessible until a person at risk for suicide has recovered."

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