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Markian Hawryluk, Bend Bulletin, “An Urban-Rural Divide Over Gun Suicide” sheds much need light on suicide

By Penny Okamoto, Executive Director of Ceasefire Oregon

“Well, maybe we should start talking about part of what being a responsible firearm owner is: Knowing when to give up your firearm or knowing when to intervene and ask to temporarily remove someone’s firearm.” – Elizabeth Marino, cultural anthropologist at Oregon State University-Cascades

Markian Hawryluk’s thoughtful, well-researched article on suicide, “An Urban-Rural Divide Over Gun Suicide,” sheds much needed light on the realities of suicide, gun ownership, how to address the issue of rural gun suicide, and the benefit of Oregon’s Extreme Risk Protection Order law.

Hawryluk highlights the work of Dr. Paul Nestadt, a psychiatrist with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who compared gun and non-gun suicides in urban and rural counties. Nestadt “found that suicide rates were 35 percent higher in rural areas, primarily due to a higher rate of firearm suicides. When Nestadt looked at non-gun suicides in urban and rural areas, there was no discernible difference in rates.”

Hawryluk continues, “No matter how you slice it — rural versus urban, men versus women, whites versus blacks, old versus young — the higher the rates of gun ownership, the higher their suicide rate. None of those differences can be explained by higher rates of mental health, suicidal thoughts or previous suicide attempts.”

The difference in suicide rates all comes down to the presence of a gun. While some gun owners state that a gun is merely a tool, one cannot ignore the obvious fact that this particular “tool” is used to commit suicide every single day in Oregon.

Hawryluk goes on to explain, “It’s not that gun owners are more likely to attempt suicide. But when they do, they are much more likely to die. Only 10 percent of people survive firearm suicide attempts, compared with 97 percent of those who swallow pills or cut themselves. In the vast majority of cases, pulling a trigger has an immediacy and a finality that cannot be reversed.”

The findings of the article concur with data from GVPedia’s paper, “Gun Ownership and Suicide:

  • Access to guns greatly increases the risk of suicide.
  • Firearms are the most lethal significant means of suicide with an 82.5% fatality rate, versus a fatality rate of 4% for all suicide attempts.
  • Lethality of means is the difference between life and death: approximately 90% of individuals don’t attempt suicide again.
  • Even with a 100% substitution rate for suicide attempts (switching from firearms to an alternative means), the completed suicide rate would still go down because firearms are more lethal.
  • Attempting suicide is usually an impulsive decision (70% decide within an hour).

Hawryluk’s article discusses how cultural anthropologists and public health professionals in Oregon took a cultural approach to talking to gun owners about the risk of gun suicide. Elizabeth Marino, a cultural anthropologist at Oregon State University-Cascades; Dr. Laura Pennavaria, a family physician who is now the chief medical officer of the St. Charles Medical Group; and Susan Keys, an associate professor of public health at Oregon State University-Cascades worked together to create ways for doctors and patients to have productive talks about the risk of suicide among gun owners. Part of that work includes a brochure called “People who love guns love you.” The brochure supports gun ownership but highlights the importance of responsible gun ownership. Marino stated, “It wasn’t about the firearm. It was about who was being responsible or irresponsible with their firearms. And so we were entering that conversation saying, ‘Well, maybe we should start talking about part of what being a responsible firearm owner is: Knowing when to give up your firearm or knowing when to intervene and ask to temporarily remove someone’s firearm.’”

In Oregon, firearms can be legally transferred without a background check under specific circumstances including:

  • “For the purpose of preventing imminent death or serious physical injury, and the provision lasts only as long as is necessary to prevent the death or serious physical injury.”
  • To a family member, specifically, “A transferor’s: spouse or domestic partner; parent or stepparent; a transferor’s child or stepchild; a transferor’s sibling, grandparent, grandchild, aunt or uncle, first cousin, niece or nephew, or the spouse or domestic partner of any of the above relatives.”
  • The purpose of the Oregon Firearm Safety Act (SB 941) is to prevent the transfer or sale of firearms to people who are prohibited by law from purchasing or possessing firearms and to hold accountable irresponsible gun sellers who arm prohibited purchasers/possessions. OFSA provides the exceptions listed above in order to prevent suicide and for self defense.

Oregon’s recently enacted “Red Flag” law, Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO), is a tool families can use to temporarily remove firearms from a person who is suicidal or has been threatening to harm others.

Our thanks to Markian Hawryluk for his work.

What you can do to protect your family:

  • Learn the warning signs of suicide or other violence.
  • Share Ceasefire Oregon’s ERPO Fact Sheet with your family and friends.
  • Use a firearm storage facility to keep firearms away from family members when they are in crisis.
  • Share this message with your friends.