Commentary: Easy access to guns leads to higher youth suicide rates

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary Herbert and others announce the creation of a community teen suicide prevention task force to combat the state's rising youth suicide problems during a press event at the Utah Capitol on Wed. Jan. 17, 2018. Also pictured are Rep. Steve Eliason, left, and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, at right, who will co-chair the task force and Troy Williams, executive director for Equality Utah, in background.

When I began working on the issue of responsible gun legislation in 2012, I did not fully understand what I was up against.

Raised in an LDS family, my Republican parents were not gun people. I soon learned how partisan the issue was, with Utah prime territory for intense gun rights fervor. It seemed the task before us was to hold back a never-ending tide of nonsensical gun bills, including the predictable annual appearance of a “constitutional” carry bill. I encountered pushback from what felt like every angle, received disturbing hate mail, and at times feared for my family’s safety.

I deliberately turned my attention to the most salient problem, a top priority which would hopefully garner support from both sides. With the leadership of Dr. Claudia Fruin from the Utah Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and financial support from the University of Utah Department of Pediatrics, we launch Bullletproof Kids Utah in early 2014.

“Owning a gun is a right. Protecting children is a responsibility.”

We held focus groups and took pains to find ways to reach our target audience — gun owners. Even with a mission that seemed so non-contentious, we had to work incredibly hard to convince many organizations and individuals to join our cause. Our good intentions were often politicized. In fairness, good policy can save lives, and we are finally seeing some good firearm policy being introduced in the Utah legislature.

House Bill 87, introduced by Rep. Elizabeth Weight last year was one of those bills. It has been tabled and may be fated to die. What that means is that it is perfectly legal in Utah to leave a loaded firearm around a child of any age, and the gun owner is not responsible for any harm caused by their negligence. Please, let that sink in.

It can be difficult for highly educated people to understand the statistical analyses in good research. The general public fares far worse. However, the findings regarding children and gun access are consistent and remarkable clear. Access to firearms significantly increases the risk of suicide among youth, and legislation restricting access to firearms among youth substantially affects the rate of handling firearms among high school students. Child Access Prevention laws, or CAP laws, like HB87, are associated with a decrease in youth suicide.

Between 2011 and 2015, the rate of suicide for Utah teens more than doubled, outpacing the national average. More than half were completed with a firearm. Though the causes of suicide among youth are complex, and multi-prong efforts toward prevention are important, access to firearms remains an important risk-factor. I could continue to rattle off mounds of research findings and statistics, which essentially say that most American parents do not store their guns safely, despite claiming they do.

Hundreds of conversations I’ve had with Utah parents at gun shows and safety fairs support that claim. Many testify to the importance of safe storage but admit keeping at least one gun unlocked and loaded, typically on closet shelf. Research reports guns used in suicides usually belong to parents and are often found in a bedroom closet, dresser drawer or nightstand, under a mattress, or in a car glove compartment.

Easy access to guns is contributing to the problem of youth suicide in Utah and unfortunately, good intentions alone do not prevent tragedies. Sound public policy and laws make a measurable difference. Though HB87 has, like a gun, been placed on a shelf for another day, please continue to support safe gun storage, and several other sensible gun bills (including House Bills 217, 331, 332, 190, and 418).

Miriam Walkingshaw, Holladay, is a Ph.D. student in educational psychology at the University of Utah.