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  • Writer's pictureKatrina Brees

Duke Center For Firearms Law

Time To Live: Safer Gun Safes and Smarter Smart Guns

Katrina Brees Tells Her Mother’s Story

I know my mom didn’t shoot herself because she wanted to be dead. She did it because she was in unbearable pain and in the throes of a psychiatric episode. My mom, Donna Nathan, loved her life. She loved to dance to Cajun music and The Beatles. She’d grab the sides of her skirt and wave it back and forth while she sang the lyrics, stepping to the beat and tossing her red hair. She loved her partner, Pat, and their four cats, kids, and grandbabies. She lived in the home of her dreams. She had access to great health care and had successfully battled many medical conditions. For decades, her bipolar disorder had been relatively well managed with a small amount of medication and she led a very full life.

Until one day her medication stopped working. Her doctor prescribed a new drug that produced a series of extreme side effects including insomnia, tremors, panic attacks and eventually suicidality. My mom became suicidal, so she did everything she had been trained to do to protect herself from suicide. She voluntarily committed herself into an inpatient psychiatric facility. She would commit herself three times in the 3 months before her death. She gave up all her freedoms and comforts in order to save herself from suicide.

In the last weeks before she died, our family encouraged her to go back into inpatient care where she could be protected, but she said she was too frail to go back to “jail.” Pat quit his job and watched over her full time from home instead. Her friends and family committed themselves to daily contact with her with streams of encouraging texts and calls. Between appointments, Donna was in daily e-mail contact with her psychiatrist.

Her last search on her phone was for “gun stores” and then she let her phone provide her with driving directions to the closest one, just a couple miles away. She had said she was going to the mall to buy underwear that morning. It was only a moment after she left that Pat felt deeply concerned. He called her repeatedly and got no answer and then called the police to attempt to intervene on her suicide attempt. She had never even held a gun before, but in a short time she had her first gun. A .38 caliber with a box of rose gold bullets with pink plastic centers that promote breast cancer awareness. She drove to a special spot at the park near her house and wrote a note that said “Pat, I’m sorry. I love you.” And then she shot herself and died.

Slowing Down Gun Purchases Saves Lives

Donna Nathan’s story is all too common.

Firearms are the most common means of suicide. In 2020, firearms were used in 53% of suicides. With 24,292 gun suicide victims annually, this is a leading cause of death for Americans. That’s more than 66 people each day. Many suicide attempts are impulsive, and the vast majority (90%) of survivors do not keep trying until they succeed. But people who choose firearms as their suicide method very rarely survive: about 85% of gun suicide attempts end in death.

It is a common misconception that a person who decides to attempt suicide will simply switch to another method if access to their first-choice method is denied. That’s simply not true. With respect to delaying access to firearms in particular, the best evidence comes from analysis of waiting periods for purchasing handguns: waiting periods significantly reduce gun suicide with no increase in non-gun suicides. Even if some substitution of methods does occur, the other common methods of suicide are not nearly as lethal as a firearm. For example, the estimated fatality rate of a suicide attempt using drugs is less than 5%.

Donna Nathan should have been able to have suspended her own ability to buy a gun.

“Donna’s Law” (also known as the “Voluntary Do-Not-Sell List”) gives people the option to voluntarily and confidentially put their own names into the federal background check system to prevent impulsive gun purchase for a suicide attempt. Donna’s Law would be available to anyone, no questions asked. But it would be particularly appropriate for someone like Donna Nathan who voluntarily committed herself for inpatient psychiatric treatment. Had her commitment been involuntary, she would have been automatically added to the background check system. We already know that people recently hospitalized for mental health problems are at greatly elevated risk of suicide. Three states so far have adopted Donna’s Law. Our goal is 50 states and the federal government. Efforts are on-going.

Gun Owners Also Have Options To Prevent Suicide

Delaying access to firearms in times of crisis can be a life-saving strategy not just for first-time gun buyers like Donna Nathan, but also for gun owners. A recent California study found that a slight majority of gun suicide deaths involved guns owned for more than one year. A remarkable Public Service Announcement in Utah (where suicides make up 84% of all firearm deaths) recommends that gun owners during a depressive episode let a friend or family member “babysit” their guns. There are efforts in many states to facilitate and build on that strategy—including online maps of police stations and gun dealers that are available to babysit firearms.

But some gun owners, even if they recognize that their suicide risk is temporarily elevated, will not take advantage of the babysitting option. They may not want to reveal their struggles to friends or family. They may not have the time, energy, or means to locate other storage facilities and to drive there and back. They may not want to let go of their firearms or may not trust someone else to return the firearms later.

Technology could offer these gun owners alternatives. One such option already exists. More and more states are adopting laws requiring that firearms be safely stored. A gun safe is a good option, but not all safes are created equal. Gun owners, especially those who sometimes struggle with thoughts of suicide, should consider a gun safe with an optional time-delay function. Such a safe provides quick access during normal times, but can be programmed during crises to open only after a set time delay. On currently available time-delay safes, the delay can be anywhere from a minute to a week. The delay option could be turned off after the crisis passes. We call this a “Donna’s Safe.” Donna’s Safe is another in a long line of hand-tying techniques. One could imagine a similar idea of locking food away so that you could not snack at inappropriate times and indeed such devices already exist.

An optional time-delay feature could similarly be added to so-called “smart guns,” which have just recently entered the market. This would provide an even easier way for a gun owner to protect against impulsive self-harm. Smart guns are currently designed to be operable only by the owner—in other words, a smart gun restricts the who. A slightly redesigned smart gun with a time-delay option—aka, “Donna’s Smart Gun”—could restrict the when. Timing, with many suicides, is everything.

Gun rights organizations might object that slowing down access to firearms will cost the lives of gun owners who were therefore unable to use their firearms when they needed them for self-defense. These technologies could be designed with backdoors to unlock the gun if a trusted friend or healthcare professional chosen by the gunowner provided a separate code. It would be truly ironic, however, for gun rights organizations that claim to promote liberty to deprive gun owners from deciding for themselves that, in a period of crisis, the risk of self-harm outweighs the risk of attack. These technologies give people new ways to protect themselves.

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The divisive gun debate usually centers on government action or inaction. Largely missing is a recognition that private decisions, without any government mandates, may have even more power to reduce gun deaths. Donna’s Law requires a new law, but it’s a law that expands choice by giving individuals a new, voluntary way to protect themselves. Current gun owners can also delay their own access to firearms, and thereby reduce their risk of suicide, by purchasing time-delay safes already on the market and by urging smart gun manufacturers to offer a time-delay function.

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