This post first appeared as "Mental illness, easy gun access can be a toxic combination" in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.
I still remember that windy, solitary run west of town early one April morning in 1984.
Folded newspapers waited to be collected from driveways. Depending on how they landed, my father’s face looked back at me, mile after mile.
It’s with me still.
As the local economy sank and businesses failed, 1984 was hard for everyone, but an especially lousy time to be a banker like my father, who had risen from poor circumstances to prominence.
Unlike those of a Wall Street stripe, he knew his clients by name and bore a great deal of empathy for their financial hardships. At the same time, he was under pressure to ensure that the bank remained sound.
I can only speculate about the cause of what happened next — whether hidden fault lines in his makeup collapsed under the pressure — but something in him broke.
He was a leader in the bank and the community, and he was supposed to be strong. He sought help, but he was also reluctant to let his illness be known. His sense of failed responsibility to other people only compounded his distress.
Far away in Minnesota, I was told there was nothing I could do here to help, that he was not himself and I should wait to visit until he was better. We all thought he was going to get better.
And then we got the call to come home.
One morning my father awoke, started his morning routine, waited for my mother to get into the shower, and then he went downstairs to the family room with a gun.
We’ll never know if he’d planned his death all along or if it was an impulse. A reaction to his medications. A final loss of hope. Or, the most chilling thought of all, that he feared harming someone in his family when reality and nightmares crossed over into each other.
Almost 30 years later, we’ve each made our separate peace with not knowing.
In 2012, Mesa County surpassed a grim record for suicides: We’re among the top counties in one of the top states. There are a lot of possible explanations for why the Mountain West has the highest rates of suicide — broad gun ownership, communities without good access to mental health services, a rural landscape and individualistic culture that stresses self-reliance and increases isolation. There’s even a theory about high altitude’s effect on the brains of people with depression.
I only know this for sure: Each suicide is its own sad story, leaving a mysterious incompleteness, a private pain. Each death creates a slipstream of questions about what cues survivors missed and what we might have done differently.
The answers can’t save a lost loved one, colleague or friend, but they can help illuminate the dual denial that makes guns and mental illness such a lethal combination.
Lately, the nation has been obsessed with the Sandy Hook Elementary school killings. Opinions are split on whether the tragedy points out the need for more gun control, better mental health access, a national registry of persons with mental illness or even more guns in the hands of citizens.
All seem to agree the public needs protection from mass killers like Adam Lanza.
But is that the real problem? It’s possible that Lanza’s murderous behavior was the byproduct of a suicidal decision and not the other way around.
School shootings like Sandy Hook are sensational but extremely rare, amounting to around three-dozen deaths per year.
There were 8,583 murders with firearms in 2011. Less than one percent of all homicides, or fewer than 120, involved more than two victims.
Contrast those numbers with the 19,766 Americans who reportedly took their own lives using firearms in 2011 — more than half the total suicide toll of 36,909.
I share these reflections because I want our community to take seriously the threat that firearms pose for people who are in mental distress.
It’s important to know that simply treating a mental condition may not be enough to save a loved one. Denial is natural. Mental states change. Easy access to a gun can make a temporary swing permanent.
At the same time, no current gun-sale law, licensing scheme or mental health screening would have prevented my father from having the gun that killed him. That heavy burden falls largely upon family, health care providers and friends who are hoping for the best, not thinking the unthinkable.
Some might say my father would’ve killed himself another way if there weren’t a gun in the house. Perhaps, but no one knows. Another method would have been more complicated, less lethal and less subject to a transitory despair.
My appeal is simply this. We should be wary of passing laws that afford an illusion of protection but fail to address the realities of isolation, irrational thought and the ready availability of the most lethal means of suicide.