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Suicides make up bulk of gun deaths in ND, MN

GRAND FORKS—The vast majority of gun deaths recorded in North Dakota and Minnesota are suicides, a national trend that has public health officials calling for the community to be alert to people in their lives who are showing suicidal tendencies and to temporarily disarm them if necessary.

Gun deaths rose slightly in 2016 for both Minnesota and North Dakota, according to data from the states' departments of health. There were 87 firearm deaths in North Dakota in 2016, 73 of which were suicides. In Minnesota, 432 people were killed by firearms, 332 of whom took their own lives.

Over a five-year period, data show 87 percent of North Dakota's gun deaths were suicides, as were 78.5 percent of gun deaths in Minnesota.

There were 417 gun deaths in North Dakota from 2012 to 2016: 363 were suicides, 36 were homicides, six were ruled accidents and 12 were undermined. Minnesota recorded 2,028 firearm deaths in that period: 1,593 suicides, 375 homicides, 20 accidents and 40 undetermined.

One of America's leading gun violence researchers, David Hemenway, a health policy professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, said having a firearm in the home directly increases the likelihood someone commits suicide.

"It probably increases the risk somebody will die by suicide inside the home about threefold," Hemenway said. "Of all things in firearm literature, that's been studied the best and the most and the evidence is just overwhelming."

When guns aren't present, suicide attempts are much more likely to fail, data shows. North Dakota Director of Suicide Prevention Alison Traynor noted that though firearm suicides represent just a sliver of attempts, they make up more than half of completions. From 2012 to 2016, 57.7 percent of completed suicides in North Dakota were committed with firearms, according to an analysis of department of health data. Since 1980, firearms have accounted for 55.8 percent of suicides in North Dakota.

"A lot of times we hear that people are just going to find away to complete (suicide), but the numbers suggest that's not necessarily the case," Traynor said.

Suicides are spontaneous, Hemenway said. You wake up and your significant other has left you, you've lost your job or been arrested. It gets dark and painful and for a while it seems there's only one way out.

"Within a half an hour they've attempted suicide, and they pick whatever is handy," Hemenway said. "With a gun it's about a 90 percent case fatality rate and when a gun isn't handy people tend to take about 100 pills, and that's a 2 to 3 percent fatality rate."

Traynor agrees.

"The actual decision to say 'I'm going to attempt now, I'm going to do this,' they're relatively very impulsive and seemingly spontaneous," Traynor said. "Many of the losses with firearms, by the circumstances, you could logically conclude quite easily that it was impulsive or there wasn't a significant amount of planning ahead of time, and so ready access to the highly lethal means like firearms just made it a lot more likely to complete suicide."

Data shows those who attempt suicide with a gun and survive have less than a 10 percent chance of killing themselves in a subsequent attempt, according to Hemenway.

"If you can save them, you'll probably save them forever," he said.

In an effort to save more people, public health officials are partnering with gun advocacy organizations. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention last year announced a partnership with the National Shooting Sports Foundation to help prevent suicides. The goal is to get suicide education in front of people who own lethal tools.

Traynor believes in North Dakota that should include suicide education during training classes for hunting safety and conceal-carry permits.

"Part of firearm safety is really knowing the warning signs and knowing signs of depression and not being afraid to ask loved ones about suicide and then taking steps to address safety," Traynor said. Traynor and Hemenway both suggest a "gun timeout" of sorts for those displaying suicidal tendencies. Hemenway said many people will feel a suicidal urge, but that urge passes within a couple hours or days. The goal is to treat friends and family displaying suicidal tendencies like someone who has had too much to drink—take away the keys, or, in this case, the gun.

"A good friend, if they see this happening, will babysit your gun for a while, and when you get a new girlfriend, you get your gun back," Hemenway said.

He noted people with aging family members should consider similar provisions if someone is behaving erratically on a regular basis, much in the way families occasionally take away cars from elderly relatives.

Traynor noted people who are attached to their guns can find ways to lock their guns and leave someone else the keys or other methods to distance themselves from a deadly tool in times of depression.

"Look at how to put time and distance between them and firearms or other highly lethal means," Traynor said.

Hemenway said from a health perspective, personal defense gun owners should consider data. "They also need to understand there's virtually no evidence at all that guns make the home safer," Hemenway said. "Home invasions by some stranger, which is why people own their guns for protection, is just so incredibly rare."

States top regional gun ownership

North Dakota has the highest gun ownership rate in the Midwest. A 2015 study conducted by public health researchers at Columbia University found the state had a 47.9 percent gun ownership rate. Minnesota came in second for the Midwest, at 36.7 percent, followed closely by South Dakota and Wisconsin. The national ownership rate was 29 percent.

North Dakota ranked ninth in gun ownership rank, according to the study. Alaska topped all states at 61.7 percent. Most states with high gun ownership ranks are in the South or West.

North Dakota's firearm death rate, 12.8 per 100,000, ranks 20th in the United States. Minnesota has the 43rd ranked firearm death rate, at 7.4 per 100,000.

"The big difference across states is gun suicides," Hemenway said. "The states with high prevalence of gun ownership have lots of gun suicides and the other states don't."

Comparing urban states to urban states and rural states to rural states, the states with the most guns have the most violent deaths, Hemenway said.

North Dakotans have become passionate about suicide prevention, Traynor said. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for young people in North Dakota and the ninth leading cause overall in 2016, according to the Department of Health.

"I think people are seeing this is one of the most serious public health problems in North Dakota," Traynor said.

Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text "TALK" to 741741.

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