Fredrick Vars and Bryan Barks: Utah’s voluntary do-not-sell firearms law can save lives

Removing access to guns is the most effective way to prevent suicide.

(Ruth Fremson | The New York Times) A display of handguns at Sharp Shooting Indoor Range & Gun Shop in Spokane, Wash., Nov. 4, 2019. A year after the coronavirus pandemic began, the toll of self-inflicted gun deaths has led to an unusual alliance between suicide-prevention advocates and gun-rights proponents; together they are devising new strategies to prevent suicide in a population committed to the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms.

Utahns are dying from gun violence — but the vast majority of these deaths are not the type of gun violence you hear about in the news. In particular, Utahns are dying from firearm suicide. Suicides make up 84 percent of all firearm deaths in Utah, and in 2019, Utah had the ninth highest firearm suicide rate in the country.

But as of May of this year, Utahns have a unique tool to defend themselves from firearm suicide. Utah has become one of the first states in the nation to enact a voluntary do-not-sell firearms list. This new law allows at-risk individuals to put themselves on a confidential, voluntary do-not-sell list, which prevents them from purchasing guns from a licensed dealer.

As a law professor who has researched this policy and a gun violence prevention advocate who lives with mental illness, we are confident that Utah’s new voluntary do-not-sell law will save lives — as long as those at risk know about the law and are able to use it.

Evidence shows that access to firearms increases the risk of suicide. Guns are lethal 90 percent of the time, whereas attempts with the other most commonly used methods of suicide are lethal less than 2 percent of the time. In short, easy access to guns during a suicidal crisis is a recipe for tragedy.

Suicide is often an impulsive act in a moment of unbearable pain. Usually, the period of heightened risk lasts only hours or minutes. In one study of near-lethal suicide attempt survivors, researchers found that one in four survivors deliberated for less than five minutes before making their attempt, and nearly 90 percent of survivors deliberated for less than eight hours.

Utah’s new law gives people agency to make decisions — when they are not actively experiencing a suicidal crisis — about their own future access to guns. To take advantage of the law, Utahns must fill out and sign a request to be placed on the voluntary temporary do-not-sell list. They can then take the form to any Utah law enforcement agency. The prohibition automatically expires after 180 days but can be extended. If someone on the list wishes to be removed, the person can submit a request for removal. However, those on the list cannot be removed until 30 days have passed since they were entered onto the list — a safeguard against the impulsivity that often characterizes suicide attempts.

There is a common misconception that suicidal individuals will find another way to end their lives if a gun is not accessible; however, research indicates that most individuals do not substitute another method if their preferred method is not available. And if they do, other methods are far less lethal.

Many people at risk of suicide are well aware of their vulnerability. People who live with mental illness that involves recurring suicidality might use Utah’s new law to protect themselves from the worst symptoms of their illness. Those who are experiencing distressing life events might place themselves on the do-not-sell list until the high-stress period has passed. Utah’s do-not-sell list allows suicidal crises to pass without easy access to a gun, increasing the likelihood that the person in distress will survive their suicidal crisis.

Suicide is preventable, and Utah’s new law is an important tool in prevention efforts. Utahns who believe they might be at risk for firearm suicide should take advantage of this new voluntary law.

Fredrick Vars

Fredrick Vars is a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law.

Bryan Barks

Bryan Barks is director of strategic communications at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.