About 25 years ago I was intensely suicidal and sought to buy a gun to kill myself on my birthday. At the gun shop, I learned that the state I lived in had a five-day waiting period. I begrudgingly filled out the forms but fortunately decompensated to the point that I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital before the waiting period was up.
I avoided an impulsive suicide attempt, took time to recover, and have now lived without a significant episode of my bipolar disorder for well over a decade. My experience is informative because it is not unusual.
What seems unusual, or at least unjust, is that hospitalization a quarter of a century ago could prevent me from buying a rifle and going sport shooting, which I truly enjoy.
In Pennsylvania, the Uniform Firearms Act and Section 302 of the state’s Mental Health Procedures Act prohibit gun ownership by those with a history of commitment for mental health issues. This restriction has been tested in and upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.
Unfortunately, this prohibition both fails to prevent suicide–the number one cause of gun deaths nationally–and denies a constitutional right to all people who have struggled in the past with mental illness serious enough to require a hospitalization, even if they’ve fully recovered. The additional unintended results of these laws are heightened stigmatization of people who have overcome mental health challenges, and an incentive for those currently suffering with such issues to avoid treatment.
Instead of this pre-emptive restriction of a constitutional right, we should more carefully consider what factors are unique among certain mental health illnesses. And my story may yield some clues about how we may think about those suffering with suicidal ideations, and how we can best address both their safety and rights.
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Suicide, while often the result of a long downward spiral, is almost always an impulsive act. The stereotype of the person who plans, gets their affairs in order and leaves a profound note is mostly a fiction. More often than not, a decision to die is rashly made. Few of these people have a past history of inpatient treatment and would not be stopped by gun laws that consider past hospitalizations or mental health diagnoses.
In my case, a sensible and minimally restrictive waiting period enabled that impulse to pass and saved my life. In an extensive research report from the Annals of Epidemiology and republished by the National Institutes of Health the researchers conclude: “An emphasis on time-sensitive risk for violence or suicide, as the foundation of evidence-based criteria for prohibiting firearms access, would be a more productive policy approach to prevent gun violence than focusing broadly on mental illness diagnoses and a record of involuntary psychiatric hospitalization at any time in one’s life.”
Mental illness certainly plays a role in many suicides. Yet, while many of the people who commit suicide struggle with mental illness, few people with mental illness ever actually attempt suicide. And among those who have in the past attempted suicide, gun ownership is much lower than the general population.
This is not to say, however, that suicide should not be considered when crafting gun policy. While used in few suicide attempts, guns still account for nearly half of all suicide deaths and 60% of all firearm deaths are suicides.
So the question is, can we create policy that helps prevent gun deaths while maintaining people’s rights?
We can if policy carefully considers the issue at hand and enables those with mental illness to make well-informed and life-affirming decisions. Perhaps a sensible waiting period is the only restriction on gun purchases we need to help prevent the majority of the gun deaths that sorrowfully impact us. Since people who have in the past attempted suicide are so much less likely to own a gun, the decision to own a gun is demonstrably best left to the individual. Individuals who, assisted by a reasonable waiting period, consistently prove themselves capable of making responsible decisions.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call the suicide prevention lifeline at 800-273-8255
George Hofmann is the author of Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, their daughter and two poorly behaved dogs.