Gun ownership is common in Utah, with nearly one-half of all households — and even more in the state’s rural areas — possessing a firearm, according to a report presented Wednesday to state lawmakers.
But while a parent might purchase a gun with the hope or intent of protecting their children from an attacker, Rep. Steve Eliason said, it is considerably more likely that a child will use that weapon to take his or her own life.
“One of the key findings of this report is that homicides by [a] stranger are almost nonexistent in Utah,” said Eliason, R-Sandy.
Suicide rates in Utah have been increasing since 2008 and currently outnumber homicides by a ratio of 8 to 1, according to the report, which was conducted by researchers from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
And the overwhelming majority (87 percent) of firearm suicides are fatal, compared to low mortality rates for suicide attempts involving drugs or sharp instruments like knives, the report found.
“If a proportion of Utahns who would otherwise attempt suicide with a firearm were prevented from using a gun, there would likely be fewer suicide deaths,” the report states, “even if those who attempted [suicide] substituted another method.”
Lawmakers voted earlier this year to commission a study of gun violence and suicide in the state. The Harvard team was selected by Utah’s Department of Human Services, with coordination and data sharing from various state agencies.
The report was released ahead of a Wednesday discussion by members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Interim Committee, which voted unanimously in favor of draft legislation updating Utah’s firearm safety and suicide prevention education programs.
The bill calls for broader distribution of a gun-safety brochure, and a program that would make trigger locks available to gun owners and a coupon for the purchase of a gun safe available to Utahns who apply for a concealed-carry permit.
“They’re not required to use them,” Eliason said of the safety materials. “They could drop them in the garbage can on the way out of the gun store.”
Researchers identified several trends within Utah’s suicide rates — particularly those involving firearms — which carry implications for potential prevention efforts. Among those trends were that roughly one half of Utahns who took their own lives were treated in a hospital during the year before their deaths, but relatively few of those individuals were treated as a result of self-harm or were diagnosed with behavioral health problems.
“Hospitals are an important venue for prevention,” the report states. "However, focusing only on those in the hospital for a suicide attempt will miss 90 [percent] of suicides.”
The report also suggests that requiring background checks for firearm purchases would not have a significant impact on fatal suicide attempts. One in four Utah men who used a gun to take their own life had a current or lapsed concealed-carry permit, and 87 percent of Utahns who died by suicide would have passed a background check on the day of their death.
“Since most people who kill themselves would be able to pass a background check, friends and family play an important role in urging loved ones in crisis to store their guns away from home or otherwise inaccessibly until the situation improves,” the report states.
Rural Utah’s gun ownership rates also correlate with higher rates of suicide deaths in those areas, while Utah’s urban centers have higher rates of non-fatal suicide attempts.
In Utah’s rural counties, 13 percent of households have an unlocked and loaded firearm in the home — compared to 6 percent statewide, according to the report. Heavy drinkers were more likely to report having guns in the home, the report states, while those with poor mental health owned weapons at a rate similar to the statewide average.
“Unlocked guns may also explain the higher [percentage] of gun suicides that occur in the midst of an argument,” the report states. “Utahns with poor mental health and those with potential drinking issues do not appear to be hearing the message — whether from loved ones, places of worship, clinicians, or firearm stakeholders — to store guns locked or away from home.”
Earlier this year, lawmakers rejected a so-called “Red Flag” bill, which would have expanded the power of the courts to compel a gun owner to relinquish their firearms if they pose a risk to themselves or the public.
That bill, or a version of it, is expected to be reintroduced during the upcoming legislative session after it was prioritized on a list of recommendations from a gun and school safety task force.
Eliason, who has sponsored several bills aimed at Utah’s youth suicide rate, noted at Wednesday’s committee hearing that the state’s trend lines on suicide are beginning to improve. But he stressed that attention and action is needed to ensure that fewer of the state’s youth and adults take their own lives.