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To prevent gun suicide, states consider allowing people to deny themselves a gun

Tim Henderson, on

Published in News & Features

As lawmakers and mental health advocates wrestle with how to stop the avalanche of suicides by firearm in this country, some are looking to a novel idea at work in a handful of states: Register yourself as a suicide risk so you can’t buy a gun on a whim.

Mass shootings get more attention, but the smaller-scale tragedy of gun suicide represents a majority of firearm deaths in most states. In the United States, suicides make up 57% of all gun deaths, or about 117,000 out of 206,000 firearm deaths in the past five years, according to federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention preliminary data analyzed by Stateline.

Many states are grappling with new ways to prevent gun suicide. It’s a goal of many state laws focused on gun violence in general, including storage, waiting periods and red flag laws aimed at removing guns from those who might be a danger either to themselves or others.

Since 2018, Utah, Virginia and Washington state have passed Donna’s Law, registries for those who think they could become suicidal and don’t want the ability to buy a gun on a whim. Maryland lawmakers are considering such legislation this spring.

U.S. Reps. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat, and John Curtis, a Utah Republican, sponsored federal legislation last year, but it did not advance beyond the House Judiciary Committee. Jayapal plans to reintroduce the bill during this congressional session, said Rachel Madley, a health policy adviser in her office.

Named for Donna Nathan, who took her own life in 2018 in New Orleans with a handgun she had just purchased, Donna’s Law is promoted by Nathan’s daughter, Katrina Brees.


Nathan had a long history of depression and mental illness and had made unsuccessful attempts on her life in Massachusetts by other methods before the family moved to New Orleans in 2010, Brees recalled in an interview.

“Massachusetts doesn’t have a gun store on every corner,” said Brees, adding that she has joined the registries in Virginia and Washington state as a show of support and because she doesn’t want other families to go through the same pain as hers.

Nationally, the lowest rates of gun suicide over the past five years are in Massachusetts (1.4 per 100,000 people), New Jersey (1.5) and New York (1.7), while the highest rates are in Wyoming (15.5), Montana (13.1) and Alaska (13.0). The national rate is 5.6, according to the Stateline analysis of CDC data.

In all but nine states, most gun deaths are self-inflicted. The highest proportion is in Maine, where 89% of gun deaths are suicides, and the lowest is Maryland, where 34% of gun deaths are suicide.


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