Commentary: New Utah gun safety law may help with soaring suicide rate

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Utah Capitol steps are covered with 600 pairs of shoes on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, representing the lives lost to suicide last year. SB37 sponsored by Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, calls for a committee of mental health workers and physicians to create a suicide prevention hotline 24 hours a day.

We are in the midst of an epidemic involving our youth and skyrocketing suicide rates in Utah. As professionals in the field of social work, we have firsthand experience working with individuals affected by this problem.

As social workers, we often work with clients who suffer from suicidal ideations and suicide attempts. When working with clients who are suicidal, our job is to determine the severity of these thoughts, whether or not a plan has been established and whether or not individuals have the means to enact this suicide plan. We have received training in suicide assessment and prevention at the University of Utah College of Social Work. Through these trainings, we have learned that when an individual has access to lethal weapons, their risk of attempting and completing suicide is significantly elevated.

Utah youth deaths by suicide continue to rise from numbers that already are too high. This epidemic is so significant that the Utah Department of Health asked the CDC to investigate the upward trend of suicide rates in Utah.

According to the CDC’s report, there has been a “141.3% increase in youth suicide rate from 2011 to 2015.” In comparison to Utah, the national average only increased by 23.5% over the same time period. Today, suicide is the leading cause of death among our youth in Utah. Additionally, it has been found that firearms are the most common weapon used by people who die from suicide. Suicide attempts are more likely to be lethal when an individual uses a firearm; according to Action Utah, “firearms are the most lethal form of suicide methods in Utah with an 87% Case Fatality Rate (CFR).”

House Bill 17, sponsored by Utah state Rep. Steve Eliason, renews and expands funding for interventions that address suicides by firearms amongst our youth and general population. This bill requires gun dealers to provide free gun locks with all gun sales. In previous legislation, gun locks were only required with handgun sales. With the passing of HB17, gun locks will accompany any and all guns sold. Additionally, firearm purchasers are given vouchers to purchase gun safes, decreasing the financial barrier to safe gun storage. These measures encourage gun owners to store and utilize guns in a safer way. Finally, HB17 requires gun safety and suicide prevention pamphlets to be distributed with all gun sales.

For most gun owners, the intention of purchasing a gun is not to commit homicide or suicide. Eliason, the bill sponsor, states, “One of the things that I hope people, particularly parents, become aware of is that the firearm they purchased to protect their family is much more likely to injure or kill a family member than an intruder’s firearm … It doesn’t have to be that way. If they will store it securely and safely, they can prevent an unspeakable tragedy from happening in their own home, while at the same time having a firearm for their family’s protection.”

This bill protects owners from catastrophic consequences of misuse of firearms, while also allowing gun owners to retain their right to bear arms. Additionally, this bill protects youth from accessing and misusing firearms owned by their parents.

HB17 passed in the legislative session and has been signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert. Our hope is that this bill will assist social workers in helping individuals who are vulnerable to suicide before it is too late. When the risk faced by our clients is death by suicide, reactive policies are not enough.

Truly, Utah’s suicide epidemic and historic lack of gun safety is a life or death problem. By incorporating preventative regulations, we are giving our youth and vulnerable adults the opportunity to heal and build a life worth living.

Lucy Izard and Natasha Fjeldsted are students in the University of Utah Master of Social Work Program

Lucy Izard and Natasha Fjeldsted are students in the University of Utah Master of Social Work Program. Izard has experience working on an inpatient behavioral health unit at a hospital in Salt Lake City. Fjedsted previously worked with children and families at the Division of Child and Family Services and continues her work with vulnerable adults at a local inpatient facility.