Wyoming could save lives by reporting mental illnesses

Posted 8/27/19

Consider tinkering with a gun law and you can expect to have a fight on your hands, even if the change seems to be common sense.

Such is the case with a proposal now being considered by the …

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Wyoming could save lives by reporting mental illnesses


Consider tinkering with a gun law and you can expect to have a fight on your hands, even if the change seems to be common sense.

Such is the case with a proposal now being considered by the Wyoming Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which is aimed, in part, at prohibiting people with debilitating mental illnesses from buying firearms.

Federal law has long made it illegal to sell a gun or ammunition to anyone who poses a danger to their self or others as a result of mental illness, who lacks the mental capacity to manage their own affairs or who’s been committed to a mental institution.

Before a licensed firearms dealer sells a gun, they’re required to run the buyer’s name through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). In theory, the system will alert the dealer if the person is barred from possessing a gun due to prior criminal convictions or mental illness.

But there are large gaps in the data. That’s in part because Wyoming and 10 other states don’t notify the FBI when people are involuntarily committed to a mental hospital or otherwise adjudicated to be mentally ill.

Firearms retailers are now encouraging Wyoming lawmakers to require the reporting of that data and the Judiciary Committee voted to advance the idea at an Aug. 16 meeting.

In our view it seems like a no-brainer — a step toward making sure that people prohibited from having guns are actually prohibited from having guns.

The proposed legislation would also ensure people have a process by which they can seek to have their gun rights restored, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported. That makes sense, too; after a demonstrated recovery from a mental illness, people should have the chance to make their case for gun ownership — particularly because the criteria the federal government uses to disqualify people can be unfair and overly broad.

Still, some Second Amendment advocates are apparently concerned with the whole idea.

A former state senator, Kit Jennings of Casper, told judiciary committee members that Wyoming shouldn’t send any information to the federal government. Jennings allowed that there might be some merit in seeking to keep guns out of the hands of those who want to harm others, but he suggested that stopping a suicidal person from acquiring a gun would solve nothing.

“You have to look closely at those words. Is the person who is a danger to himself a danger to others?” Jennings said, according to the Tribune Eagle. “Taking a gun away from a guy who really wants to commit suicide probably isn’t going to stop them.”

His argument might sound persuasive. But it’s a dangerous misrepresentation of what we know about gun deaths and suicide. In fact, while murders and mass shootings might be driving our public discourse about guns, there’s strong evidence to suggest the most significant part of this legislation is the opportunity to save the lives of those who are thinking about suicide.

Of the 39,773 people who died from firearm-related injuries in America in 2017, most of those deaths — some 60 percent — were suicides. According to CDC data, homicides made up 36.6 percent of gun-related deaths.

In many cases, a person considers suicide while in the midst of a temporary crisis. And many times, they find help and hope — perhaps receiving something as simple as a reminder of how much they are loved — and they survive.

But guns are particularly deadly, meaning that people who attempt suicide by that method often don’t have an opportunity to reconsider their actions or summon help, Madeline Drexler wrote in a spring 2013 piece for Harvard Public Health magazine.

A study by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center found that gun owners and their families were much more likely to die by suicide than non-gun owners.

“... It’s not that gun owners are more suicidal,” Catherine Barber, director of a suicide prevention campaign at the Harvard center, told the magazine. “It’s that they’re more likely to die in the event that they become suicidal, because they are using a gun.”

In other words, contrary to what lawmakers were told, keeping a gun out of the hands of a person who’s thinking about suicide actually can make a life or death difference. Story after story and empirical evidence show that suicide is not an inevitability — and we should make every effort to fight for those who are struggling.

That’s one reason why the Wyoming Legislature should require the state government to report adjudications of mental illness to the FBI, to be entered into NICS.

This and similar measures to keep guns out of the hands of people suffering from mental illnesses are often spoken of as if the sole goal is to protect us from evildoers planning a mass shooting. But it may be more appropriate to think of them as offering another chance to save the lives of our friends and neighbors in crisis.


(If you, a friend or a loved one are struggling with thoughts of suicide, there are people standing by to help — including with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.)