September 2, 2020 Press Releases

COVID-19 And The Crisis Of Firearm Suicide In Washington

Highlighting effective firearm suicide prevention policies in light of National Suicide Awareness Month

SEATTLE, WA – On average, someone dies by suicide every eight hours in Washington state and almost half of those suicides are carried out with a firearm. As our communities confront the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, the threat of suicide is heightened. In recognition of National Suicide Prevention Month this September, the Alliance for Gun Responsibility is highlighting the increased risk of suicide during the COVID-19 pandemic and existing effective policies designed to prevent firearm suicide in Washington state. 

Across the country, suicide accounts for three-fifths of all gun deaths. Here in Washington state, that number is nearly 75 percent. Risk factors for suicide include stressful life events, social isolation, hopelessness, helplessness, and access to lethal means. Each of these factors is exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. 

The best tool available for fighting the lethal coronavirus—social distancing—threatens to worsen social isolation, uncertainty, and financial hardship, which can contribute to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. 

Since the start of the pandemic, the United States has experienced historic job loss and economic turmoil. In the United States and Europe, suicide rates rise about 1 percent for every one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate. During the Great Recession, unemployment peaked at 10 percent in the U.S. and suicide rates spiked as well, resulting in thousands more deaths. 

Social distancing also makes it much more difficult for individuals to access needed mental health care as providers adapt to office closures. And job loss often means loss of health insurance and therefore coverage for mental health services.  

Finally, when it comes to suicide, means matter greatly. Access to firearm in the home increases the risk of suicide three-fold. And firearms are by far the most lethal suicide method with close to nine out of 10 attempts being fatal. As people panic-buy firearms and ammunition in response to COVID-19, the risk of suicide is increasing. 

Historically, families, people in crisis, care providers, and law enforcement have not had effective tools to help prevent firearms suicides in our state. Fortunately, that is changing, and Washington is now leading the charge to reduce firearms suicide. Outlined below are five policies designed to help remove the threat of firearms from crisis situations and prevent suicide. 

Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs)

Extreme Risk Protection Orders, established through Initiative 1491 in 2016, give law enforcement or families, through a court process, a legal pathway to remove guns from an individual who poses a threat to themselves or others. Research has shown that as many as 10 suicides are prevented for every 100 guns removed by Extreme Risk Protection Orders. Learn more about ERPOs here

Voluntary Waivers

Since January 2019, Washingtonians have been able to voluntarily request that they be placed on a list of individuals ineligible to purchase firearms. The policy, which only requires individuals to fill out a simple form and present it to a specified court official (along with identification), empowers individuals who know they may be at risk of suicide to take their safety into their own hands. Washington is currently the only state in the country with this commonsense tool. More on voluntary waivers here

Access Prevention

In 2018, Washington voters passed Initiative 1639, which includes a safe storage provision that holds irresponsible gun owners legally accountable if their firearm falls into the hands of a child or another prohibited person. Safe firearm storage creates a meaningful barrier between suicidal thoughts and action. This policy also helps keep guns out of the hands of children and teens, who too often die as a result of self-inflicted gunshot wounds from firearms found in the home. More on dangerous access prevention here

Firearms and 72-Hour Involuntary Holds

Individuals in crisis are often held for 72 hours under Washington’s Involuntary Treatment Act. Thanks to a law passed by the state legislature in 2019, these individuals who are exhibiting dangerous behavior will be subject to a temporary, six-month prohibition on firearms possession or purchase, helping to ensure that they and their families have time to safely seek treatment.

Temporary Emergency Transfers 

In 2017, Washington’s firearm transfer statutes were amended to allow for temporary emergency transfer of firearms between private citizens in order to prevent suicide. This change allows a gun owner in crisis to give their firearms to a trusted person for safekeeping until they no longer pose a threat to themselves. 

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. More suicide prevention resources―including other helplines, safe storage options, and more―can be found here