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Most gun deaths are suicides. Could this law help prevent them?

SHARE Most gun deaths are suicides. Could this law help prevent them?
A Ruger Super Redhawk .44 Magnum sits in a display case at Impact Guns in South Salt Lake on July 6, 2022.

A Ruger Super Redhawk .44 Magnum sits in a display case at Impact Guns in South Salt Lake on July 6, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Suicides account for the vast majority of gun deaths in Utah, and more than half of all suicides in the state are by firearm.

A similar trend can be seen nationally with firearm suicides accounting for 54% of gun deaths and 53% of suicides involving a firearm, according to Pew Research Center.

In an effort to combat the use of guns in suicides, Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, introduced a bipartisan bill in Congress last month to create a national voluntary “Do not sell” firearms list.

The concept of the voluntary “do not sell” list is to allow individuals to restrict themselves from buying or possessing a firearm, the main purpose being to reduce the use of guns in suicides.

This federal bill was inspired by similar programs in some states, including one in Utah.

Utah’s law allowing individuals to restrict themselves from purchasing a firearm, introduced by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, was passed in 2021 and officially implemented in May 2021.

As of July, five people have chosen to voluntarily restrict themselves from possessing a firearm, according to previous Deseret News reporting.

Since “do not sell” policies are fairly new, that puts “a lot of eyes on Utah,” said Evan Goldstein, assistant professor in the department of population health sciences at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

Goldstein said states are like “public policy laboratories” where leaders on the federal level, such as Curtis, can observe the effectiveness of a policy and decide if it could work nationally.

“I think that we’ll be able to learn from what’s going on in Utah,” Goldstein said. “And I think we’ll be able to learn that enacting a voluntary no sell list policy is feasible. It’s feasible politically.” 

How accessible is Utah’s ‘do not sell’ list?

To date, five Utahns have put themselves on the list since the program went live in May 2021.

In Washington state, which was the first state to implement a voluntary “do not sell” program in 2019, 13 people had signed up as of July 2020, the Virginia Mercury reported.

Goldstein, who studies how public policy can protect against firearm suicide, said the lack of use could point to challenges in the implementation or promotion of the program.

“It’s one thing to have a policy and then it’s another thing to effectively implement and promote a policy so that it’s successful,” he said.

For someone having suicidal thoughts, having to acknowledge them to an unknown person can be in “difficult and vulnerable,” Goldstein said, and could be a potential barrier to utilizing the program.

Currently, individuals who wish to restrict their firearm access have to take a form into a law enforcement agency and present it to an officer.

Eliason, who sponsored the bill, said he plans to introduce changes in the upcoming legislative session in hopes of making the program more accessible.

One change he would like to make is to add an option for medical professionals to aid individuals in the process.

The proposal would allow a person to fill out the form in front of a medical professional who would verify the individual’s identity and then allow the medical professional to take the form to law enforcement on behalf of the individual.

Eliason said the change is to help “streamline” the process as it’s “too unduly burdensome right now.”

When it comes to creating policy to reduce firearm suicides, there’s “no magic wand,” Goldstein said.

“It’s all about the public policy toolbox and a voluntary do not sell firearms list has the potential to be another tool in the toolbox for trying to help reduce firearm suicide deaths,” Goldstein said.

As of now, there isn’t much research on the program’s effectiveness but one study published with the American Association of Suicidology in 2016 suggests individuals in a mental health crisis would make the choice to voluntarily restrict themselves from purchasing a firearm.

The study found 46% of individuals who were receiving psychiatric care indicated willingness to restrict themselves from possessing a gun and would utilize a “do not sell” program.

How does gun access play into suicide rates?

Rachael Jasperson, director of the Zero Suicide program at the University of Utah, said having a firearm readily available can increase the possibility of suicide due to it often being an impulsive act and to the lethal nature of firearms.

According to Jasperson, the time between someone making the decision to attempt suicide and actually making the attempt is often as little as 10 minutes.

She said the idea behind having a voluntary lethal means restriction is not about gun control but about “creating time and distance” between a suicidal person and a gun.

In 2021, Utah saw an increase in firearm suicide, said Jasperson, from about 51% in previous years to around 54% to 56% last year.

Jasperson notes that Utah also saw an increase in background checks for gun purchases in 2020. According to Deseret News polling, 53% of Utahns have a firearm in their home.

How does Utah’s ‘do not sell’ list work?

To voluntarily be put on the list, an individual must print and fill out the “Request for Voluntary Temporary Firearm Restriction List” form from the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification and walk that form into a law enforcement agency.

Once the request is processed, that individual will be restricted from purchasing or possessing a firearm for 180 days. The restriction expires at the end of those six months but individuals have the option to voluntarily extend the restriction.

Early removal from the list is allowed 30 days from the initial request to be put on the list. To do so, individuals fill out the “Voluntary Temporary Firearm Restriction Removal” form through BCI and take it into a law enforcement agency.

After the removal of a person’s name, all records related to the individual being on the restricted list are destroyed.

Jasperson, said the program allows individuals who recognize they are at risk for suicide to work on overcoming a crisis without the concern of having access to a firearm.

“It really empowers a person to take their mental health, to take their struggle into their own hands,” Jasperson said.

What if there are already guns in the home?

In Utah, if an individual chooses to voluntarily restrict themselves from purchasing or possessing a firearm, they become a restricted person under the law.

While the bill that created the voluntary restriction list doesn’t provide specifics on what individuals should do if they already possess a firearm, Utah has a separate law addressing the issue.

Under the “Safe Harbor” law, also passed in 2021, individuals have the option to remove guns from their home if they or someone they live with is a danger to themselves or others.

The law allows for firearms to be temporarily confiscated by law enforcement and be held for 60 days with the option to extend the hold. Guns can be retrieved once the hold expires.

Is a ‘do not sell’ list a type of red flag law?

The short answer is no.

Extreme risk protection orders, also known as red flag laws, allow immediate family members or police officers to petition the court to temporarily remove guns from someone if they believe that person is a threat to themselves or to others.

The key difference between extreme risk protection orders and a voluntary firearm restriction is the “do not sell” list is voluntary.

The only way for one to be added is if they make the choice to restrict themselves from having a gun. Extreme risk protection orders allow immediate family members or law enforcement to restrict an individual from possessing a firearm.

Attempts to pass red flag laws in Utah have failed multiple times, though recent polling from Deseret News shows 72% of Utahns support such laws.

Despite opposition, evidence suggests extreme risk protection orders are effective in reducing gun suicides, Goldstein said.

He referenced two studies that analyzed red flag laws in Connecticut and Indiana that found for every 10 to 20 gun removal actions, one suicide was prevented.

Because it can be an “emotional public policy issue,” it’s important to make sure people are talking with each other instead of over each other, Goldstein said.

“I think we all agree that no one wants any more unnecessary loss of life,” he said. “And we all want to do what we can to help save lives in our families and communities.”