Suicide has no single cause. Some people who kill themselves are socially isolated, have a serious illness or money problems; some have a substance use disorder or a mental illness like depression.

But millions live with some or all of those challenges and don’t end their lives while others kill themselves without exhibiting any of those traits.

One factor, however, links most of completed suicides in the United States, and that is access to a gun. Suicide attempts are almost always fatal when a firearm is used, with nine out of 10 ending in death. Firearms were used in more than half of suicide deaths, even though guns are used in less than 5 percent of suicidal acts.

So, we were saddened, but not surprised, to learn that Maine with its high rate of gun ownership outpaces the nation in gun suicides. According to statistics compiled by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, 132 Maine people died by self-inflicted gunshot in 2020, dying at a rate 25 percent higher than people in the rest of the country.

There are demographic explanations. White males accounted for 70 percent of all suicide deaths in the nation in 2017, and middle-aged white men are the group with the highest risk. As the whitest and oldest state in the country, Maine should expect to find a concentration of these deaths.

But easy access to guns is really what puts Maine people’s lives at risk.


According to a 2020 study by the Stanford University Medical School, men who owned a handgun were eight times more likely to die by self-inflicted gunshot than people who did not, and handgun owning women were 35 times more likely.

“Suicide attempts are often impulsive acts, driven by transient life crises,” the authors write. “Most attempts are not fatal, and most people who attempt suicide do not go on to die in a future suicide. Whether a suicide attempt is fatal depends heavily on the lethality of the method used — and firearms are extremely lethal.”

If any other product were linked to so many deaths, we would know what to do. But because of the historical, constitutional and emotional attachment some people have with their guns, we act as if we were helpless.

In 2019, Maine passed the so-called Yellow-Flag Law, which was supposed to offer a way to get guns away from people in crisis. But in order to overcome the objections of groups that fight any restriction or firearm regulation, it was watered down to the point that it is virtually unusable.

Based on the extreme risk protection order, or “Red Flag,” laws that now exist in 19 states, the Maine law was supposed to provide a way for a court to temporarily take guns away from people who are a danger to themselves or others.

But in Maine, these proceedings can only be initiated by the police and not friends or family members. And before a judge can order guns to be temporarily taken away, the subject has to have a psychiatric evaluation, an expensive, time-consuming process.


That’s why the Maine Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians, the Maine Medical Association, the Maine Hospital Association and the Maine Association of Psychiatric Physicians all expressed concerns while the bill was pending and their predictions have come true. Despite having a documented problem with gun suicide, this well-intentioned law is rarely used.

But instead of trying to fix what’s wrong with Maine’s law, gun-owner activists and Sen. Susan Collins are campaigning to make it a national model.

A Red-Flag law is not, in itself, a cure for gun suicides.

We also need a robust community mental health system, and an end to the stigma that prevents people from seeking help.

But we shouldn’t throw up our hands and say that there is nothing that can be done. We can’t abolish suffering, but we can recognize that some people should not be around guns when they are in crisis.

The state should support family members who want to help their loved ones. We have a problem and we can do better.








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