Ken Bacha is no foe of the Second Amendment.
As coroner for Westmoreland County, he carries a Glock 23 pistol in a protective hip holster, almost casually, like an oversized smartphone.
He’s fond of hunting. He enjoys shooting sports, gun bash fundraisers, and has about 15 guns at home. He shoots, his wife shoots, his daughters shoot.
That’s pretty typical in in the county, where gun sales are among the highest in the state, where hunting is a way of life and gun permit applications swell after terror attacks and mass shootings.
Guns for sport, guns for protection. Bacha has both.
In his 15th year as coroner, he also sees a moral responsibility to explain what’s killing his residents. That duty is what brought him to this old schoolhouse in Greensburg in mid-September. It’s an open room with a fried chicken buffet and bowls of candy set out on conference tables. He is talking to about 20 members of a suicide prevention task force.
This August, an unprecedented number of deaths put the county in danger of topping 60 suicides by the year’s end. “Which would be a new record,” Bacha, 55, told the group. “Which is not good.”
Handfuls of asphyxiations, intentional overdoses, blunt trauma make up those tragic deaths. Yet all those combined still trail the one category responsible for about 60 percent of the fatalities:
That’s common knowledge to many in the room. But it’s mostly unknown to the public. Guns are implicated in street crime and mass shootings but little is ever mentioned about these lonely deaths.
It’s suicide, not homicide
Back in 1999, gunfire took 1,183 lives in Pennsylvania. Now, deaths total about 1,400 annually.
Homicides don’t account for that rise. Those are rare in most places.
Remove three counties — Allegheny, Philadelphia and Delaware — and you’ve removed roughly 70 percent of the state’s gun murders from 2014, the most recent year with statewide data.
Most Pennsylvania counties have either zero gun murders or totals you could count on one hand.
That’s not the case for suicides, which account for nearly two-thirds of the state’s gun deaths, largely in towns like Greensburg and the surrounding rural areas. Eighty-five percent of these suicide victims are white men.
Gun suicides outnumber murders in Pennsylvania
In most Pennsylvania counties, gun suicides are far more common than gun murders. Using state data on gun deaths from 2010 through 2014, PublicSource has totaled each county’s gun suicides and murders. The darker the shade of blue, the higher the rate of gun suicides compared to gun murders in that county. Only in Allegheny, Delaware and Philadelphia Counties were gun murders more common.
“Everything you read about in the paper is always homicides,” said Laurie Barnett Levine, who heads the Ray of Hope suicide prevention task force, which Bacha addressed in Greensburg. “Nobody talks about suicide.”
Virtually no public account exists for most of these cases. Not in newspapers, which only report the most public incidents, not even in obituaries. The reasons are understandable. Sensitivity to the stigma of suicide, fear of inspiring other deaths and basic privacy.
But the void creates a skewed view of gun deaths.
In Westmoreland County last year, there were 32 gun suicides and only four total murders, according to the coroner’s office. Most of those suicides are white men age 41 and older.
Through October, suicides were on pace to trail the county record by just two cases, putting 2016 as the second deadliest year for suicides in county history.
Meanwhile, the county is in the midst of an unprecedented opioid crisis, which Bacha thinks is related to the rise in suicides. Common risk factors for suicide include depression, other addiction, isolation and breakdowns in families, which can hit men particularly hard in middle age.
Add in guns, and a moment of desperation can lead to an irreversible tragedy.
“It’s one thing to think about shooting yourself and not have a gun in the house,” said Krista Mechling, who focuses on suicide prevention at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Pittsburgh. “It’s another thing to have an arsenal down the hall in a locked cabinet.”
Veterans have an even greater risk for suicide and are more likely to use guns.
A self-inflicted gunshot wound is often instantaneous. No chance for intervention. No second thoughts.
That’s not true for many other suicide methods, including drug overdoses, where there’s time to get help. Because suicide is often impulsive, a survivor might not seek other ways to take their life.
“They may still be very miserable and ill, but they will not have the momentum to attempt suicide,” said Dr. Alexandre Dombrovski, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.
So what does that mean in Westmoreland County, where guns are culture and 30,000 firearms were sold or transferred last year?
Levine, executive director of Mental Health America of Westmoreland County, said finding an effective way to reduce suicide deaths is something that’s stumped the task force for years.
In the past, they’d discussed a plan to pass out information on safety and suicide risks at gun shops. That hasn’t progressed, she said, explaining that they didn’t want to look like they were linking guns and mental illness or trying to discourage sales.
Bacha isn’t sure that would work.
“Putting a brochure in a gun shop,” Bacha said, “I don’t know if that’s going to be the right thing.”
It’s not that the guns aren’t safely stored. These aren’t unintentional shootings by people who don’t understand their weapons. They’ve often been around guns their whole lives.
But Bacha does see the need to raise awareness. Saving lives requires understanding the risk of suicide, teaching family and friends to identify when someone is struggling and then to do something.
Take the guns out. All of them. Or take the bullets.
Not Second Amendment gun control. Intervention in a crisis.
Gun shop intervention
A similar approach, which frames gun sellers as part of the solution, is part of a national experiment.
Bill Brassard, senior director for communications at the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said it’s widely known in the industry that two-thirds of gun deaths are from suicides. It’s members of his organization that sell those guns.
Now the organization is using its clout to help the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) educate gun owners on suicide risks and warning signs.
“We have credibility with firearms owners,” Brassard said. “They will realize this is a different sort of safety message.”
Robert Gebbia, chief executive of AFSP, said his organization has a goal of reducing suicides by 20 percent by 2025. Without focusing on firearms, that goal seemed out of reach.
The partnership will promote suicide awareness and safety at gun shops and teach sellers, instructors and range operators to recognize warning signs that a customer might be at risk for suicide.
A pilot program is focusing on Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri and New Mexico. The groups hope to expand nationwide within two years.
Pennsylvania is exactly the type of gun-rich state where the initiative could have an impact. In two years, nearly 1,700 more Pennsylvanians will likely lose their lives to gun suicide.
At the coroner’s office, Bacha said suicides are among the most frustrating cases to investigate because they can be so preventable.
When guns are a source of pride, getting someone to hand them over when they’re struggling can mean a difficult conversation. It can also reduce the largest and least acknowledged category of gun deaths in Pennsylvania.
Bacha said there’s a responsibility that comes with the right to bear arms.
If all the guns disappeared, he’s not sure how greatly suicides would drop. But lives could be saved if people are willing to talk candidly about suicide and recognize when a loved one shouldn’t be left with guns and ammunition.
“Just to be safe,” Bacha said, “how ‘bout we take hold of your firearms for a while?”
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