America is overlooking its biggest gun problem

Mass shootings capture our attention, but suicide is responsible for more deaths.

 

Eric Sandstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a freelance writer in Fraser, Colorado.


Six years have passed since I spent one morning with the dead body of a stranger. The scene remains frozen in my brain as though he’d shot himself yesterday, rather than back in 2012. 

I was a park ranger working at Colorado National Monument, preparing to lead visitors on a hike up a popular canyon. Then came the news of a dead body at a canyon overlook. Two other rangers and I shifted gears and drove 15 miles to the scene of a suicide.

Colorado National Monument, near Grand Junction, Colorado.

The body lay on the ground, face up, in the shadow of piñon pines. He was a middle-aged, brown-haired white guy, which makes him typical these days: In 2016, white males accounted for seven out of 10 suicides. He was hatless on this chilly spring day and had parked his car nearby. He’d fallen to the ground, a bloody pillow of pine needles under his head, and his jacket partially obscured the handgun he’d used. I arranged a tarp to shield his body from curious park visitors.

A cellphone had dropped from the man’s other hand, and I wondered who he’d been talking to before he pulled the trigger. I felt sad — even angry — at the waste of this human life. Now, I realize that the tragedy reflected a larger issue. There is another epidemic of gun violence that seldom crosses America’s radar: suicide.

Our society has come to accept mass shootings, usually by deranged young men wielding AR-15s. It’s a new normal. Within the last 12 months, shootings happened at a small church in Texas, a Las Vegas concert, a rural county in Mississippi, and a high school in Florida, to name just a few. Journalists covered the heck out of these tragedies, while ignoring the far more common gun deaths involving older men, usually depressed, who ended their lives with handguns. 

Suicides comprise two-thirds of all gun deaths in the United States. Most of them never make headlines. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the estimated 34,000 people shot to death every year in the United States, 65 percent of those fatalities — 22,000 — are suicides.

No simple solution comes to mind. Liberals want Congress to outlaw assault rifles, and conservatives think arming teachers in schools is the answer. Neither idea will reduce gun suicides. A first step requires a change of focus from weapons to people suffering with depression. Suicide has become the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. These deaths cost society about $57 billion a year in combined medical and work-loss expenses. While death rates of heart disease, traffic accidents and cancer continue to decline with the help of federally funded research, the National Institute of Mental Health has reported that the suicide rate has remained constant for 50 years. Research might help to lower the death rate, but we have been unwilling to put enough federal money into it.

On that spring day in 2012, I helped guard the body of the dead man for three hours, until the coroner arrived and began his investigation. He photographed the scene and then rolled the corpse into a body bag. We helped him lift the heavy bag into his vehicle.

Afterward, I covered the bloody pine needles with dirt, so nobody would stumble upon what had happened there. Before the coroner drove off, he muttered, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” 

We need to admit that America’s biggest gun problem is actually suicide. During my 20 years as a journalist, I reported dozens of murders, but only a handful of suicides. Why aren’t they more in the news? We don’t cover them out of respect for the privacy of victims’ families, the stigma attached to mental illness, and the potential for copycat suicides. As a result, the public suffers from mass ignorance. As long as public officials pretend that tweeting their thoughts and prayers solves gun violence, preventable deaths will continue.

Six years later, I still wonder about the dead man’s family, if he had one, and I think about how suddenly their world was tipped upside down. Who he was, why he did what he did, I never learned.

Today, I’m just a former park ranger who happens to be a gun owner, trying to make sense of my country’s desire for a simplistic answer: Do we outlaw some guns or not? Life is more complicated. Let’s pay more attention to those vulnerable souls who believe the only solution to their problems is suicide. They deserve all the help they can get … before the coroner shows up with a body bag.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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