SALT LAKE CITY — About 85 percent of all firearm deaths from 2006 to 2015 in Utah were the result of suicide, according to a newly released study presented to lawmakers Wednesday.
Additionally, firearms are used in roughly 50 percent of all suicide deaths in Utah, and there is a fatality rate of 87 percent among those who attempt to take their life with a gun, making it the most lethal form of self-harm, the new study says. The report was overseen by the Utah Department of Human Services with the help of the Harvard School of Public Health.
In 2016, the Utah Legislature passed a law instructing human services officials to examine data relating to the intersection of suicides and firearms. The Department of Human Services discussed the full findings in detail for the first time in a presentation to the Health and Human Services Committee.
Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, speaking of firearm suicides, said that "the data firmly shows this is a public health issue."
"I don’t think we should ever be afraid of the data," Eliason, a co-sponsor of the 2016, bill told the committee.
Eliason also presented to fellow lawmakers on Wednesday a new billintended to financially incentivize Utahns to purchase gun safes.
Gun death breakdown
Another bill sponsor, Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, told the Deseret News that learning 85 percent of gun deaths are from suicide "was shocking to me."
"I never would have guessed that," he said.
About 79 percent of Utahns under 18 who died from a homicide from 2011 to 2015 died at the hands of a family member, while 74 percent of female homicide victims in that time were killed by an intimate partner or family member, the study found.
For men killed by homicide in that span, "typically the decedent was either criminally involved (i.e., drug dealer killed by customer), killed in a justifiable homicide, or killed during an escalating argument, often at a bar or party," a summary report of the study says.
Across all groups, "random attacks by a stranger" accounted for just three to four homicides per year in Utah, the study found.
"The relevance of homicide data to suicide prevention is that Utahns can use Utah data as they weight the relative threat of stranger violence, domestic violence and suicide with respect to their own family's safety and their own household's acquisition and storage of firearms," the report said.
Still, the study also cautions that "we are unaware of a data source in Utah that sheds light on the number of times a gun is used to successfully ward off an intrusion or attack without loss of life to either the defender or intruder."
While 87 percent of suicide attempts using a firearm led to a fatality, that was in contrast to just 44 percent of attempted suffocations or hangings, 27 percent of attempted lethal gas inhalations, and even lower figures among other methods.
The study said wide disparities in fatality rate, when comparing methods of self-harm, can account for data showing that Utah's metropolitan areas had higher rates of suicide attempts, but that rural areas had higher rates of completed suicides "driven by greater use of firearms in attempts."
Those findings mean that "if a proportion of Utahns who would otherwise attempt suicide with a firearm were prevented from using a gun, there would likely be fewer suicide deaths, even if the people substituted another method," the study found.
"One way to achieve this is if family members help keep guns from a loved one at risk for suicide," the report said.
King said differences in fatality rate among various suicide methods should be eye-opening for everyone concerned with proper gun safety.
"Once you know how people end up dying, there's a lot to be said for secure storing," he said.
Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, has been supportive of the study. He told the Deseret News he hopes it helps homeowners with guns inside the housetake note that to reduce the risk of suicide by somebody they know, "they need to control access or deny access to anyone who shouldn't have (it.)"
For gun-owning parents with a depressed child, Aposhian said, proper precautions such as using a secured safe and recognizing early signs of mental illness can reliably prevent guns from becoming "an instrument of tragedy in our families."
“For too long gun owners have shied away from the issue of suicide as it relates to firearms. Perhaps because we have not had the reliable unbiased data this study presents," Aposhian added in a prepared statement.
"By working together, in a trusting atmosphere and in cooperation with partners, the Utah Shooting Sports Council is confident we can reduce suicides while maintaining our right to keep and bear arms — all without government mandates.”
Data from 2014 and 2015 shows that just 8 percent of Utahns who died of suicide by using a gun would not have passed a background check allowing them to purchase one, the study said.
"These are not criminals. These are not individuals who raise red flags for the purposes of failing a background check," King said, making it all the more important the issue of gun safety is viewed specifically through a public health perspective, rather than only through the lens of criminal justice.
The study concluded that because a person's suicide risk may be difficult to detect via a background check process, "friends and family play an important role in urging loved ones in crisis to store their guns away from home or otherwise inaccessibly until the situation improves."
Morissa Sobelson, community health program director for Intermountain Healthcare, told the Deseret News that the hospital and clinic system has launched an online training tool, informed by the study and geared toward Utah medical providers, designed to help health professionals have productive conversations with their patients about gun safety.
"Saving lives is not an anti-gun or pro-gun issue, but really a moral imperative," Sobelson said.