A bipartisan U.S. Senate agreement does not restrict gun access after high-profile shootings in Texas, New York and Oklahoma, which advocates say is necessary to prevent such attacks. But the agreement’s focus on mental health has raised hopes – and doubts – that it will help reduce gun suicides, especially in rural western states where there are widespread open gun laws.
Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, and Idaho have the highest gun suicide rates among the states. And despite studies concluding that stricter firearms safety laws help control gun violence, lawmakers in those states have long rejected sanctions that experts say will reverse these decade-long trends.
Conservatives in Congress, reflecting their counterparts in those Republican-led states, are resisting explicit policies that would limit gun access, such as raising the minimum age for buying an AR-15-style rifle to 21. Proposals have been made to change the age limit after guns. This type was recently used in an elementary school shooting in Uvalade, Texas; Shooting a grocery store in Buffalo, New York; And shooting at a hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Instead, 10 Republican senators signed a framework that includes a provision that would help finance the Red Flag Act, which would allow courts to temporarily confiscate firearms from people they consider a threat to themselves or others. Nineteen states, and Washington, D.C., have such laws. If 48 Democratic senators and two independents who normally vote for Democrats agree, that party would be big enough to overtake any Philipbuster and pass a bill.
The agreement includes advanced background checks for people under the age of 21 and significant investments in mental health and telehealth resources. The draft bill was released on Tuesday.
But gun control advocates say the agreement abandons measures that have been shown to help prevent suicide – the leading cause of death involving guns in the United States – such as mandatory waiting times and safe-storage requirements. They also warn against associating high gun suicide rates with mental illness.
“It’s important to be clear that mentally ill people are more likely to be victims of gun violence than criminals,” said Sarah Bird-Sharps, senior director of research for gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.
Residents of rural states are particularly at risk for gun suicide. The study found a link between isolated rural life and “death from depression”, which is related to substance use, mental health problems and suicide. Some studies have suggested that living at high altitudes – a reality for many Mountain West residents – increases a person’s chances of developing symptoms of depression or suicidal tendencies.
According to the state Department of Health, Montana had the second highest rate of gun suicide nationwide in 2019. From 2010 to 2019, 86% of all Montana firearms deaths were suicides, compared to 61% nationally. The study conclusively concludes that stricter firearms protection laws help control gun violence.
However, Montana has almost no restrictions on who can buy a gun, what type of gun a person can buy, when to buy it, or how it can be carried in public. The state no longer requires the public to be allowed to carry weapons hidden in public places, and Helena’s lawmakers passed a law in 2021 that barred universities from controlling the placement of firearms on campus. That law was temporarily blocked during the legal challenge.
Wyoming, Alaska and Idaho have similarly high gun suicide rates and relatively low restrictions on the purchase and possession of firearms.
Andrew Rose, 24, of Boise, Idaho, knows for himself how approved gun laws can be. Rose’s brother committed suicide in 2013, using a gun he bought the same day.
Rose described her brother’s suicide as “a moment of crisis,” which might have been cut short if Idaho had a compelling waiting time that forced him to take a break and consider his plans. Rose believes “suicide rates have everything to do with gun accessibility” and with the deaths of her brother and others like her.
Proposals to restrict gun access in these states are routinely rejected, so advocacy groups have focused on prevention through mental health services.
But it is difficult to force treatment on someone who is on the brink of mental illness and violence, says Matt Kuntz, executive director of the Montana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “In a state like Montana, where we have a lot of people who value their gun rights but also need help, how do you make it as easy as possible?” He said.
As with exploring the provisions of the U.S. Senate Agreement, Kuntz says, any successful federal gun control law must be based on state laws that have been examined. “States need to be laboratories of innovation,” he said.
In states where gun suicide rates are low, gun policy is strict. Depending on the state, research shows that for every 10 to 20 firearms fired using the red flag law, also known as the Extreme Risk Act, a suicide is prevented.
There are nine states and some versions of Washington, D.C., a mandatory waiting period, where a person has a three to 14 day delay in buying a gun. A 2017 study found that waiting time could reduce gun suicides by 7% to 11% and gun killings by 17%.
The waiting period “creates a buffer for the person in crisis to think,” Bird-Sharps said. “There can be a difference between getting out with a gun and carrying out their plan in a suicide crisis or reconsidering and saving their lives.”
The Safe-Storage Act, or Safe-Storage Act, is considered one of the most effective ways to prevent a young person from accessing a gun in their home. In eight states and in Washington, D.C., firearms owners must unload, lock and separate their guns from ammunition. About two dozen states have laws that hold firearms owners accountable if a child uses their weapon.
But it would probably be difficult to find enough support for such a move to pass an equally divided U.S. Senate. Texas Chief Republican Sen. Sen. John Kornin said the red flag provision in the agreement was on fire as the structure evolved into law.
Donald Trump Jr. opposed that In a recent tweet“Any ‘Republican’ who sells left to support this trash can put a (D) next to their name,” he said.
Sen. Steve Dines, a Montana Republican, said he did not think Congress should “interfere” in states’ decision to pass red flag legislation.
Republicans aren’t the only lawmakers who have their limitations on gun control. Democrats in rural areas are also sensitive to them. Sen. John Tester, a Montana Democrat, says massive public support measures, such as strong background checks and more money for behavioral and mental health services, will help fight Montana’s high suicide rates. But the examiner told Halfpost that he opposes other measures, such as raising the minimum age for buying a semiautomatic rifle.
Advocates for stronger gun laws say stronger federal measures outside the current proposal are needed to create real change.
“I hope everyone understands that if we work together we can make a huge difference,” Rose said. “I hope people understand that saving lives is entirely within our power. We just have to stand up and tell the truth. “
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