Opinion: To reduce risk of mass shootings, prevent suicides
Increased support for suicide prevention measures would begin saving lives immediately.
Law enforcement officers are seen at the Valley Transportation Authority's light rail yard, where a mass shooting took place
San Jose on Wednesday. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
By SARAH C. PECK and JAMES ALAN FOX
|PUBLISHED: May 29, 2021 at 5:15 a.m. | UPDATED: May 29, 2021 at 5:24 a.m.|
Not much is known about the motives of the gunman who killed nine co-workers at a light rail yard in San Jose on Wednesday. But we do know that he took his own life at the scene of the crime. Mass killers saving their last bullet for themselves is a recurring theme. Forty percent of public mass shooters commit suicide, according to the Associated Press/USA Today/Northeastern University Mass Killing Database.
The fact that so many public mass shooters are suicidal provides hope that some of these horrific crimes can be prevented by focusing specifically on suicide prevention. Although the common perception is that homicides and mass shootings predominate, about two-thirds of the nearly 40,000 gun deaths annually in the United States are suicides. If we as a nation focus on reducing suicides, not only can we save the lives of many of our loved ones, but we may also avert some mass slaughters in the process.
Research has shown that the risk a household member will commit suicide is increased threefold when there is a gun in the home. This is not to say that we need to take guns away from law-abiding gun owners who show no signs of being dangerous. However, lives could be saved by a public education campaign (ideally endorsed by gun-rights organizations) recommending that gun owners: 1) temporarily remove a firearm when a household member is in crisis, and 2) safely secure handguns and long guns bought for sport or protection, especially if there is a minor in the home.
In cases where a family member is concerned that a gun owner appears suicidal or likely to harm others, Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) laws (so-called "Red Flag Laws") give police a tool to remove guns temporarily. Indiana passed the first ERPO law in 2005 following the murder of a police officer. The Indiana law was considered by authorities in the case of an Indianapolis gunman when his mother raised concerns that he was suicidal, but an ERPO order was not sought because he voluntarily relinquished his gun. As a result, the gunman was later able to legally purchase the gun he used in the FedEx shooting.
California's law, which refers to these orders as Gun Violence Restraining Orders (GVRO), has been in effect since 2016. In the San Jose case, the gunman's ex-wife was reported as saying he was unhappy with his work environment and had threatened to kill his colleagues. Other signs the gunman was dangerous are emerging: He was reportedly detained by the FBI for carrying terrorist documents and NBC Bay Area's Investigative Unit reported he was facing a disciplinary hearing for racist comments. Pursuant to California law, a law enforcement officer, a family member, or an employer may file a GVRO petition. Yet apparently no GVRO was sought in this case.
Researchers have found that Indiana's ERPO law reduced suicides by 7.5%. To date, research has focused on suicide prevention, not murder.
However, there are a few documented cases where an ERPO was used to remove a gun from someone who was contemplating a mass shooting. Although we will never know for sure, in at least some of these cases, including the case at the San Jose rail yard, removing the gun may have averted a bloodbath.
Most Americans agree something must be done to stop the scourge of mass shootings. Increased support for the suicide prevention measures described here, including a robust public education campaign promoting safe gun storage and educating the public about ERPO laws, would begin saving lives immediately, even as the partisan debate over gun legislation rages on in Congress.
Sarah C. Peck is director of #UnitedOnGuns, an initiative of the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law. James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy also at Northeastern University.
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