Bill To Curb Gun Suicides Raises Complicated Questions
New Mexico has one of the highest suicide rates in the country. And more than half of those deaths involved a gun.
Some state lawmakers want to reduce suicides by confiscating guns from people who could pose a danger to themselves or others.
The measure’s known as a red flag law.
Desiree Woodland has a framed picture of her son Ryan in the kitchen. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia 12 years ago.
"This is him and his sister. And he was already ill," she said, dusting off the photo of a young man in glasses and a blue hoodie.
Ryan was put on medication to address his schizophrenia, but not his anxiety and depression. Woodland said she didn’t know that her son was feeling suicidal, but he did ask her once about what happens to people who kill themselves after they die.
“And I said, ‘Well, only God knows what they’re suffering.’ I didn’t know he was talking about himself," she said, her voice breaking.
Talking more openly about mental illness and suicide might have helped Ryan, Woodland said, but their family never really did that.
“I just think we didn’t realize how important it was to talk about what was going on inside of you and make that be OK, and not just blow it off or brush it away," she said.
Nine months after he was diagnosed, Ryan bought a gun and shot himself at their house. His internet search history showed he had researched how to do it. He was 24.
Woodland doesn’t think that the proposed red flag law would have changed anything for her family.
“If there were guns in the house and I knew someone was suicidal, that would be an easier thing," she said. "But to just – I mean my son just didn’t show any signs and he got a gun, but I didn’t know it. So that wouldn’t have helped him at all.”
More than 260 New Mexicans used a gun to kill themselves in 2017. Our suicide rate is 70 percent higher than the national average.
Under the proposal, a police officer would check on a person who’s been flagged by someone they live with. If police find that that person poses an immediate danger to themselves or others, they would go to a judge who could schedule a hearing with the gun owner to decide whether that person’s guns should be taken away for up to a year. That hearing would have to happen within two weeks.
Michael Norko, a psychiatry professor at the Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut, said suicide rates do go down in states with red flag laws like this.
“It’s not going to prevent all the suicides, but it will have a noticeable effect, most likely," he said.
Connecticut was one of the first states to pass a red flag law, and its firearm suicide rate shrank by 14 percent.
“It’s actually become kind of a public health tool that mostly has the effect of preventing suicides, or at least delaying them,” he said.
House Republicans have voted against the bill in committee, questioning things like whether guns could be taken from the wrong owner by mistake. Second Amendment rights were a top concern, but none of these lawmakers would talk to us: Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell; Rep. Gregg Schmedes; Rep. James G. Townsend; Rep. William R. Rehm; and Rep. Zachary J. Cook.
Democratic Representative Daymon Ely said his bill was written with Second Amendment protections in mind.
“What we’re trying to do is provide a balance between people’s right to bear arms and the obligation we have as a state for public safety, to save lives," he said.
Remember, a judge would have to sign off, Ely says, and people can only report folks they live with - you can’t be reported by a neighbor who’s got a bone to pick.
"There should be a mechanism by which you can remove guns from the house.”
But Khal Spencer worries that having the police go to someone’s house to take their guns away could actually worsen that person’s mental state.
“There may be better ways of doing that rather having the police kick down your door, which is my concern," he explained.
Spencer keeps more than a half-dozen firearms in the garage of his Santa Fe home.
"This is a .300 H&H Magnum, so it's basically what you'd call out in the east neck of the woods an Elk rifle," he said, cocking the barrel and showing its empty chamber.
Spencer is also on the board of the Los Alamos Sportsmen’s Club.
“I think if we stress education and responsibility, then guns are just another tool in the house," he said.
The red flag proposal could restrict a person’s access to their own guns when they’ve broken no laws, Spencer said, and it lacks bipartisan support. That, he said, makes it harder to figure something out that works for everyone.
"The problem is trying to get some middle ground or some sort of procedures that try to lessen the impact of gun violence while not creating prohibitions," he said.
Ultimately, Spencer asks, what if people aren’t comfortable contacting police about their friends and family when they are going through tough times? He says you can’t change culture by passing a law.
Support for KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McCune Charitable Foundation, the Con Alma Health Foundation, and from KUNM listeners like you.