It’s About Suicide

The debate on gun control needs to expand to include mental health

Mass murderers never ask themselves, “After I kill all these innocent people, how will I escape?” The “escape” is a pre-planned suicide — whether delivered by one’s own hand or by a police sharpshooter.

ass murderers never ask themselves, “After I kill all these innocent people, how will I escape?” The “escape” is a pre-planned suicide — whether delivered by one’s own hand or by a police sharpshooter.

Reducing access to firearms will surely save lives, but such measures fail to address the source code in all these terrible tragedies: the disordered brain of an utterly hopeless, mentally ill, suicidal person. The vast majority of the mentally ill are not violent, but those who become suicidal represent a special threat. The so-called suicide “contagion effect” travels like a virus from one suicidal mind to another via the media, and most mass murders follow another event where a “like me” suicidal, rage-filled young man kills others and then himself.

Yes, our culture of violence aids and abets the suicidal mind. Yes, too many guns and large capacity magazines increase the body count. But while some measures will help on these fronts, these genies are out of the bottle and are not going back in. Early detection, assessment and treatment of emergent suicidal behavior in known at-risk populations will at least give us a chance of reducing violence in our nation.

To understand the suicidal mind, we must first understand that persistent suicidal thoughts and feelings are markers for unremitting, unendurable psychological pain. If we are thinking about killing ourselves or others, something is terribly wrong and needs immediate attention. More than 90 percent of suicide deaths are by people suffering from serious mental illnesses or substance abuse problems, the majority of which remain untreated.

In 2010, unbearable psychological pain contributed to 38,364 completed suicides. That’s 105 Americans a day. Imagine what Congress and the president would do if an airplane loaded with 100+ Americans crashed not once a month, not once a week, but every single day, day after day after day? Yet, because suicidal people usually die alone and devastate only family and friends, it is only after mass murder that Congress rises from its lethargy.

We who work to prevent suicide strongly support this statement by former Surgeon General of the United States Dr. David Satcher: “Suicide is our most preventable death.”

Rather than arming teachers, we should ask: What actionable public health knowledge do we have to reduce suicide and collateral violence? We have a lot. Published in September, the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention represents our best scientific thinking on how to prevent suicide and its related violence.

And in 2003, our own Air Force published a study in the British Medical Journal demonstrating that a robust, mandatory suicide prevention program created a 33 percent drop in suicides and an 18 percent drop in homicides.

So let’s focus on what will work. Let’s implement our National Strategy for Suicide Prevention now. Remember that calm, happy, mentally healthy people — including millions of gun owners — do not kill themselves or others.

So as the gun debate unfolds, let’s not get lost in the bushes of how many bullets a Bushmaster holds, but view it through this lens: Almost all mass murderers die by suicide; suicide is preventable; prevent suicide, and you prevent violence. 

Paul Quinnett, Ph.D. is president and CEO of the QPR Institute (, an organization dedicated to the prevention of suicide He lives in Cheney.

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