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  • Writer's pictureKatrina Brees

What you think you know about gun deaths is probably wrong

Updated Oct 3, 2018; Posted Sep 30, 2018 | The Times-Picayune

When most people think about the number of gun-related deaths in America each year, the first images that likely come to mind are of gang violence or mass shootings. Our national debate on gun control is almost always centered on an active-shooter event or a plea to get guns off the streets.

But while gang activity devastates many neighborhoods and communities, that violence accounts for only 1 out of 5 gun-related deaths nationally. And while mass shootings are horrific in so many ways, they are responsible for less than 1 percent of firearm deaths annually.

The largest number of gun deaths in the United States by far -- 63 percent -- are a result of something rarely even mentioned in the gun control discussion: suicide.

That statistic tends to escape notice because most news organization don't report on suicides the way they do homicides based on studies that show publicity can sometimes lead to more suicides. Details of a suicide, such as the specific method, also are often left out of news reports for the same reason.

The policy is no doubt an example of practicing responsible journalism, but it also masks the understanding of how big a role suicide plays in the annual gun death total and skews the overall debate on firearms toward ownership rights rather than cause of death.

Katrina Brees wants to change that.

Reporter Richard Webster tells Brees' story as part of | The Times-Picayune's ongoing series "A Fragile State" on Louisiana's broken mental health care system.

Brees' mother, Donna Nathan, who had suffered for years with severe depression and was often suicidal, took her own life in June with a handgun she had purchased only hours earlier.

A little more than half of all suicides in America involve a gun, which is far more lethal than other methods. Nearly 90 percent of suicide attempts with firearms are fatal compared to 3 percent or less for other methods such as overdosing or wrist-cutting.

That fact is all the more crucial in the light of studies that show suicide attempts most often occur shortly after people first decide to kill themselves. The impulse is sudden and powerful but may subside as time passes or there is a chance for someone to intervene. Those who attempt suicide and fail may change their minds.

Having a gun readily on hand substantially shifts the balance toward death.

In many cases the firearm has been purchased for the sole purpose of suicide. One study found that the rate of firearm suicide was 57 times higher among recent handgun buyers than among the general population.

That was the case with Donna Nathan, who purchased her gun and bullets in the morning and was found dead by police eight hours later in Audubon Park.

Louisiana doesn't have a waiting period for buying a gun. And while Nathan had a documented history of mental illness and suicide attempts, she could only have been denied the right to buy a gun in Louisiana if she had been through a judicial process in which a judge determined she was suicidal, homicidal or gravely disabled and ordered her to be involuntarily committed for treatment.

Nathan, who had the loving support of family and friends in coping with her illness, had always voluntarily committed herself.

Two days after her mother's body was found, Webster reports, Brees published a post on her Facebook page:

"My mom bought a gun in New Orleans on Tuesday and drove to (Audubon Park) and opened the box and shot herself.

"I'm telling you all because gun control is not only about homicide, it is twice as likely to be a suicide. People suffering from bipolar and depression have no way to protect themselves from a suicidal gun purchase in Louisiana.

"I wish my mom could have registered herself as being unfit to buy a gun. She would have signed it years ago to protect herself and our family. I'm sorry to be so raw, I feel raw. I can't believe how impossible it was to get my mom help and how easy it was for her to buy a gun."

Brees didn't realize that she was endorsing an idea that will become law next year in the state of Washington and is under consideration in California, Massachusetts, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

It is called a "no guns" self-registry and allows individuals to voluntarily waive their right to purchase firearms. Those choosing to do so would be put in a state or national database making it illegal for licensed gun dealers to sell them firearms. The idea is similar to the self-exclusion lists for gambling addicts that ban them from casinos.

It clearly won't prevent all suicides, but statistics suggest it could reduce the number. Some lives will be saved.

There is no Second Amendment debate here. People choose to ban themselves. This is not about gun control, it is about self-control.

Louisiana lawmakers should take note.

Tim Morris is a columnist on the Latitude team at | The Times-Picayune. Latitude is a place to share opinions about the challenges facing Louisiana. Follow @LatitudeNOLA on Facebook and Twitter. Write to Tim at

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