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Akst: With suicide, when there's a way, there's a will

quot;What most people don't realize is that more

Photo credit: Donna Grethen / Tribune Media Services | "What most people don't realize is that more than half of gun fatalities are neither accidents nor murders. They're suicides," writes Daniel Akst.

Daniel Akst

Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Daniel Akst Daniel Akst

Daniel Akst is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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Gun violence isn't the only thing that sets America apart from similar affluent democracies. A second factor is the cowardice of politicians in the face of gun violence.

Fortunately, there is something you can do to reduce the terrible toll of lives taken by guns in this country.

You can get rid of yours.

There are a lot of guns out there in this great nation of ours -- around 300 million, or almost one per person. In a Gallup poll last year, nearly half of American adults said they had a gun at home or on their property. Some of these are used in hunting, of course, but perhaps a third are handguns kept for personal protection.

If that's why you keep a gun, you're probably making a mistake. It may be legal for you to own that weapon, but it's making your life riskier, not safer. Your family would be better off without it.

If you don't believe me, consider the facts. Around 31,000 Americans die annually as a result of gun violence. That's 85 a day; two more people are injured for every one who dies.

Let's leave aside the murders for now -- among them the Aurora, Colo., killings -- to observe that hundreds of these gun deaths each year are tragic accidents. People mistake friends and relatives for intruders. Children get hold of a weapon. It's awful.

But what most people don't realize is that more than half of gun fatalities are neither accidents nor murders.

They're suicides. Tragically, using a gun is a terribly efficient way to take your own life. The fatality rate of suicide attempts involving guns exceeds 90 percent. To put this in perspective: when people try suicide by taking an overdose of drugs, the fatality rate is in the single digits.

You're not planning on suicide, you say. Ah, but that's today. It's hard to say what sorrows tomorrow will hold -- or what your spouse or your teenager might do if the wherewithal is at hand. The fact is, homes with guns are more likely to experience a suicide (and a homicide, and a gun accident) than those without, even allowing for other risk factors.

But, you say, removing a gun won't keep a determined person from suicide; someone bent on ending it all will just use another method.

This assumption is logical, but it's also wrong. Extensive research shows that people who fail at suicide don't just move on to another method. Often, they just stop trying.

One of the best proofs of this comes from England. For years that nation relied on coal gas, which is rich in deadly carbon monoxide, for heating and cooking; by the late 1950s it accounted for nearly half of suicides. The poet Sylvia Plath, in 1963, was among them. But by 1977 England had completed a decade-long transition to natural gas -- and its suicide rate had fallen by roughly a third. Sticking your head in the oven, as Plath had done, was no longer effective, but people didn't seek out some equally lethal alternative. They just lived.

The same happened with the Duke Ellington Bridge in Washington, D.C. It was a favorite of jumpers, but opponents of installing barriers noted that the nearby Taft Bridge would serve just as well. Yet when barriers were installed in the 1980s, suicides rose only slightly on the Taft -- and fell citywide by about as many as were dying beneath the Ellington. Unable to leap from their preferred span, Washingtonians resigned themselves to living.

Like certain bridges, guns seem to cry out to people in despair, too often with fatal consequences. Chekhov is supposed to have said that if a writer puts a gun on the wall in the first act, it better go off in the second. But why make your life such a drama? Do yourself a favor and get the gun off the stage.

Daniel Akst is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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