WEST BARNSTABLE — Introducing a panel discussion on guns and suicide at Cape Cod Community College last Thursday, state Rep. Michael Day of Stoneham said that Massachusetts gun laws have been effective but are “obviously far from perfect.” The event was the first stop on a statewide “listening tour” Day has organized as part of a review of those laws.
Suicides account for 57 percent of all firearm deaths in Massachusetts, and 20 percent of suicides in the state are by firearm, according to the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, a national nonprofit research project.
The state’s rate of suicide by firearm is among the lowest in the nation, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationwide, firearms account for more than half of all suicide deaths.
Day declined to speculate on what specific changes in the law he was contemplating. But he told the Independent that “the mental health aspect is one of the places that the Commonwealth needs to improve.” That is why he saw suicide and guns as the right starting point for the tour, he said.
Many of those in attendance last Thursday, however, wanted to downplay the role guns play in suicide. “For you to tie this to guns, you politicians, is disgusting,” said one.
The home page of the Gun Owners Action League website urged “all Massachusetts gun owners to attend these events” and offered downloadable talking points decrying gun control measures. That site was among the top hits in a reporter’s online search for information on Day’s “listening tour.”
Barnstable Police Chief Matthew Sonnabend, one of the event’s four panelists, said there can be a disconnect between gun licensing authorities and the state Dept. of Mental Health.
During background checks, it is easy for an applicant’s mental health history to slip through the cracks, Sonnabend said. “If information doesn’t get reported, or if the person got treatment outside of their auspices, they wouldn’t know about it,” he said of the Dept. of Mental Health.
Sonnabend also talked about how law enforcement can help remove firearms from those who might be thinking of harming themselves or others, thanks to the state’s Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) legislation, known as a red flag law. Under the law, household members and police departments worried that someone poses a risk can apply for a hearing to determine whether that person’s gun license should be suspended and weapons surrendered.
Sonnabend added, however, that he had never seen the law used. “Since 2018, and I can only speak to the First Barnstable District Court, there haven’t been any ERPOs issued.”
Orleans District Court has issued one ERPO since 2019, according to a source at the courthouse. Provincetown Police Lt. Greg Hennick, Truro Police Chief Jamie Calise, Wellfleet Chief Michael Hurley, and Eastham Chief Adam Bohannon all said that no ERPOs have gone through their departments.
But Chief Hurley said firearms do get surrendered in the wake of mental health concerns a few times a year, and that can be done unilaterally by the chief because he is the licensing agent. “If there’s a concern, I feel more comfortable revoking the firearm and then looking into it,” Hurley said. “It can always be reinstated.”
Several audience members at the panel discussion expressed doubts about the red flag law and challenged its focus on firearms, with one asking why risk protection orders focus on guns rather than other means that might be used in a suicide attempt.
The reason for a focus on firearms, said panelist Karen Ellery Jones, assistant director of Samaritans on Cape Cod and the Islands, is their lethality. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 85 to 90 percent of suicide attempts using firearms are fatal.
The fatality rate for drug overdoses — the most common means of suicide attempts — is under 3 percent, according to a Harvard School of Public Health report.
Audience members objected to the facts presented by the panel and argued that guns were being “scapegoated.”
“If I want to commit suicide, and they take my guns,” said one man, “I will adapt and overcome and find a way.”
But according to the website of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, “Research shows that most people in suicidal crisis who don’t have easy access to a lethal suicide method will not simply find another way to kill themselves. Removing access to firearms and other lethal means allows time for both the moment of intense suicidal crisis to pass, and for someone to intervene with potentially lifesaving mental health support and resources.”
Jones said that, based on interviews with suicide attempt survivors, “the average time between thinking about suicide and attempting ranged from less than five minutes to 20 minutes.” Because so little time passes between suicidal ideation and action, easy access to a firearm can mean the difference between life and death.
“We know that sensible gun safety laws, safe storage of firearms, and recognizing that limiting access to them when a person is at risk prevents deaths,” said Jones. Lower rates of gun ownership and more gun regulation are both correlated to lower numbers of suicides, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“You say ‘restrictions on firearms,’ and people become very defensive,” said panelist Kelly Cunningham, director of the Div. of Violence and Injury Prevention at the Mass. Dept. of Public Health. “This is more about safety.”
Cunningham said that not all firearms instructors teach about suicide prevention. Working with the state police, she said, her department is building a curriculum to be used by firearm instructors.
The fourth panelist, Ellen Dalton, is the founder and CEO of the Nan Project, a suicide prevention nonprofit. Dalton’s daughter, Nan, died by suicide unrelated to a firearm, she said.
Dalton spoke about the importance of improving mental health care and said that studies show suicidal ideation is particularly common among LGBTQ youth.
“Twenty-two percent of suicide deaths in this commonwealth are from firearms,” said one audience member. “The other 78 percent are being ignored in this meeting.”
Kerrie Ann Auclair, director of the state chapter of the DC Project, a women’s gun rights organization and a leader of the Bristol County chapter of Armed Women of America, told the Independent that “people think that guns are weapons. They’re not weapons.” Auclair said that “guns become a weapon when they need to become a weapon. Other than that, they’re just tools.”
Cape Cod Grandmothers Against Gun Violence was also represented at the meeting. “It was really offensive to me to hear people saying, ‘Our gun suicide rate is only 20 percent,’ ” Donna Wald, president of the group, told the Independent after the meeting. “Translate that into families that have lost loved ones and that’s just a reckless statement.”