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Barks: Virginia Law Offers a New Tool for Self-Defense

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Bryan Barks

Bryan Barks

I have been managing recurring suicidality since I was 18.

Over the past 12 years, I’ve learned that my bipolar disorder — and the suicidality that often accompanies it — must be aggressively managed.

Suicidality refers to the serious thoughts about taking one’s own life, suicide plans and suicide attempts.

When I am suicidal, I become someone I don’t trust, someone my healthy self doesn’t recognize. My thoughts don’t align with my values. I have trouble remembering my reasons for living.

When I am stable, and recall what my suicidal self was thinking and how I was acting, my blood runs cold.

In April 2019, in a moment of suicidal anguish and desperation, I did something completely out of character. I researched where to buy a gun.

I had worked in gun violence prevention for years. I knew all the reasons why someone who struggles with chronic suicidality should not own a gun. I knew that suicides make up three-fifths of all gun deaths.

I knew that access to a gun in the home increases the odds of suicide more than three-fold. I knew guns are highly dangerous when someone is suicidal, as they are the most lethal suicide attempt method.

And yet, that day, consumed by a mood episode, I didn’t care about the facts. I didn’t care about the danger. I didn’t care about my life.

I envisioned myself walking out of a gun store near my home in Alexandria, Va., with my new purchase. I imagined how it would feel in my hands — cold and heavy.

Luckily, my doctor intervened and I was able to get help before I acted on my suicidal impulses. Unfortunately, too many people do not. That same year, 661 people died by firearm suicide in Virginia, and suicides comprised 65 percent of all gun deaths in the Commonwealth in 2019.

Long before I found myself researching where to buy a gun, I had wished for and written about the need for tools to proactively prepare for suicidal crises. As of July 1, Virginians 18 and older will have one more tool available to them.

Next month, Virginia will become one of the first states in the nation to enact a voluntary do-not-sell firearms list. This policy, which was passed by the Virginia General Assembly and signed by Gov. Northam in 2020, has the potential to prevent suicide and save countless lives.

The new law allows interested adults to fill out a form, attach a copy of their photo ID, and send it to Virginia State Police. The law requires the Department of State Police to maintain and update the voluntary do-not-sell firearms list to prohibit the possession, transportation, and sale of firearms to adults who voluntarily enroll themselves.

If someone on the list wants to remove themselves, they can do so after a waiting period of 21 days — a safeguard against the impulsivity that often characterizes suicide attempts.

Evidence consistently shows that access to firearms increases the risk of suicide. Guns account for approximately half of all suicide deaths in the United States.

This high proportion is not because guns are the most commonly used method in suicide attempts. They are not. It is because guns are lethal 90 percent of the time, whereas attempts with the other most commonly used methods are lethal less than 2 percent of the time.

For people like me, who are prone to suicidality, having access to firearms is extremely dangerous. For us, self-defense means ensuring firearms aren’t easily accessible. Virginia’s new law gives people agency to make decisions about their own access to guns when they are not actively experiencing the anguish of suicidality.

Though there is a common misconception that suicidal individuals will simply “find another way” if a gun is not accessible, research indicates that most individuals do not substitute another method if their preferred method is not available. Once the period of highest risk passes — usually within hours or minutes — the urge to act typically wanes.

Acute suicidality hijacks your ability to think clearly. It tells you your life isn’t important. It robs you of your judgment and problem-solving skills.

If a gun is easy to access, a temporary moment of despair and a lapse in judgment usually becomes a permanent loss.

Virginia’s new voluntary self-prohibition law allows those prone to suicidality to take protective action on their own behalf when they are well, knowing the suicidal version of themselves might not be capable of acting in their own best interests.

Voluntary self-prohibition is a powerful acknowledgment of suicide’s preventability. Approximately 90 percent of those who survive a suicide attempt do not go on to die by suicide.

If we can help people survive temporary suicidal crises, we are ultimately saving lives.

Virginians who believe they might be at risk for firearm suicide — whether they live with a mental illness, are struggling with distressing life events, or both — should take action to help themselves and take advantage of this new voluntary self-prohibition law.

Bryan Barks is the director of strategic communications at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

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