Politicians and national media focus on mass shootings, but in W.Va., most gun deaths are suicides

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Mountain State Spotlight. Get stories like this delivered to your email inbox once a week; sign up for the free newsletter at https://mountainstatespotlight.org/newsletter.

By Ian Karbal, Mountain State Spotlight

On May 24, 19 children and two adults were killed by a teenager with an AR-style rifle at a Texas elementary school. 

Two days later, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey used his Twitter account to argue against increased gun safety measures. When one Twitter user suggested a compromise, Morrisey told him to “hold the line.

West Virginia residents are more likely to be killed by guns than people in most other states, but the publicity surrounding mass shootings can obscure the true nature of gun violence in West Virginia.

Nearly three out of four people in West Virginia who are killed with a gun end their own lives, a rate roughly 20% higher than it is nationally. And those people are often left out of discussions when politicians talk about gun safety.

In 2020, 325 West Virginians were killed by guns. Of those, 220 of those were suicides. That’s up from 300 gun deaths, 196 of which were suicides, in 2019. 

“I think that most Americans probably have a little bit of a skewed vision of what gun violence looks like,” said Dr. Michael Siegel, a Tufts University professor who studies gun violence. “The only gun violence that really gets covered in the media tends to be mass shootings.”

Andrea St. Clair, the West Virginia chapter director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, knows how quickly an available gun can lead to suicide.

When she was 15 years old, St. Clair’s uncle killed himself with a firearm. Just that morning, he had called her mom about the carpet for the new home he was building.

“We know that there’s not a substitution effect when, say, somebody chooses to end their life with a firearm,” St. Clair said. “If the firearms aren’t accessible, it’s rare that somebody searches for another means to end their life.” 

Moreover, she added, people who survive suicide attempts rarely go on to end their own lives. “They are able to get the help that they need to help prevent them from getting to that point again.”

Last year, after another string of highly publicized mass shootings, West Virginia lawmakers passed a bill banning state and local law enforcement from enforcing federal gun laws that exceed those in West Virginia. That came after President Joe Biden encouraged states to adopt red flag laws, which would allow someone’s family or law enforcement to ask a judge to temporarily take the person’s guns, if they can prove the person is a danger to themself or others.

The law cited the West Virginia Constitution, which reads that “a person has the right to keep and bear arms for the defense of self, family, home and state,” and called red flag laws “anathema” to West Virginians.

Siegel, who has conducted dozens of studies on gun ownership, legislation and mortality, cites research showing red flag laws are among the most effective measures for preventing suicide.

“Family members know best what’s going on with their family,” Siegel said, and a red flag law would allow for intervention. “Access to a lethal means is the greatest risk factor for a completed suicide.”

Nationally, guns are used in only a small fraction of suicide attempts, but they’re used in more than half of all completed suicides.

“The longer that somebody has between the thought and their ability to act on it, there’s a much greater chance that their thoughts will shift from the need to take their own life,” said Lata Menon, CEO of First Choice Services, which runs the West Virginia branch of the Suicide Prevention Hotline. 

For Menon and her employees, some of the hardest calls are when the caller has a gun.

“That is the single most volatile situation that exists,” Menon said. “Simply, the nature of a firearm is such that you can act and you can take your life in a split second.”

State Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, has made suicide prevention a major part of his platform. As the co-chair of the Legislature’s interim veterans committee, and a veteran himself, he is responsible for driving policies that impacts a population roughly 150% more likely to commit suicide than the average West Virginian.

In the last few years, Weld has sponsored legislation aimed at increasing quality mental health access. He’s sponsored successful bills to develop Community Certified Behavioral Health Centers, create behavioral health crisis centers, and require health insurers to cover mental health care like they do other medical treatments.

“Something I spend a lot of time working on in the Senate is just increased access and availability of mental health services,” Weld says. 

Weld‘s previous bills haven’t included any restrictions on guns, but he did bring up Florida’s red flag law as something he might consider if he saw evidence that it prevented suicide. That law received bipartisan support after a 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 people.

Florida’s law is relatively new, making its impact difficult to study. But Siegel pointed to a study that found older red flag laws in Connecticut and Indiana were effective in preventing suicide.

“There’s only one law that we found that is really effective with preventing suicide, and those are the red flag laws,” Siegel said. “That makes sense because you’re identifying people specifically who are at high risk for violence. They’re known to be suicidal.”

Morrisey has said he doesn’t support red flag laws because they “eviscerate due process” rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution; he did not return a request for comment. After Congress unveiled the outline of a gun regulation package, Gov. Jim Justice said that he would not support a red flag law in the state. And in Kanawha County, school board members are considering a proposal to hire armed guards in disguise to patrol schools.

Siegel said that strictly reactive responses to mass shootings will likely lead to ineffective gun control.

“The main implication of focusing on mass shootings is that we tend to say, OK, well how can we prevent that one case, rather than how can we prevent the overwhelming number of events,” he said. “What will reduce suicide rates is having a lower prevalence of guns. Suicide rates are directly proportional to the prevalence of guns.”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Beginning July 16, 2022, you can call 988 for the same services.

West Virginians can also call 1-877-HELP304 or text 877-435-7304.

Military service members, veterans and their families can reach the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (then press 1), chat live or text 838255.

Reach reporter Ian Karbal at iankarbal@mountainstatespotlight.org

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