Cover violent crime long enough, and certain stories stick to the inside of your ribs. More often than not, they’re the worst kind.
After my time as a beat reporter in Charleston, the five-week state trial of Michael Slager sits just above my gut. There were plenty of bomb threats called into the courthouse in the early days, but as the weeks dragged on, any aspiring terrorists lost interest. A bit of indigestion still lingers for me, brought on by a hung jury and the hours spent repeatedly watching Walter Scott gunned down in an empty lot.
Slager’s mistrial was followed immediately by Dylann Roof’s day in court. More than two years after he opened fire inside Emanuel AME Church, those in the oppressively cold courthouse were led by the throats through every detail of his nine murders.
Twitter alerts from mass shooter fan clubs pinged off of my phone. Kids online, no older than Roof himself, had already begun holding him up as some misunderstood idol, no different from how a previous generation revered Kurt Cobain. Those moments live somewhere underneath my lungs, stifling any breaths that try to go too deep.
Then there is a rainy day spent standing among a huddle of reporters on King Street, looking on as SWAT teams assembled outside the hostage standoff at Virginia’s on King. That one sits in my liver.
Almost 100 shots were fired over the course of these three crimes. But among all the high-profile stories surrounding acts of gun violence, there is one I’ve never shared. One pull of the trigger that I always kept to myself.
It’s largely unremarkable — just another tragedy that I came across while sifting through police reports. But it’s become a story that I feel every day. One that was in my bones before I even read it.
Years ago now, Charleston police discovered a man dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Nearby his body was a note, carefully placed next to a printout of the deceased’s employee benefits.
“Make sure the coroner records the time of death,” he wrote. “It will be before midnight, so my life insurance is intact. Save money. Have me cremated. I love you all very much and this is the best way to keep you whole.”
The reason I still remember this specific violent act is the same reason I know I can’t have a firearm in my home. I know sooner or later the anxiety and the depression will dig in deep, another bill will arrive in the mail, and with it will come what is somehow the easiest thought to have: “You can stop this any time you want.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 22,000 Americans ended their own lives with a firearm in 2015. This total surpasses the number of firearm homicides that same year (12,979) as well as the number of total homicides (17,793). A new report released this week by the CDC revealed that overall suicide rates continue to rise sharply in every state with the exception of Nevada.
While the reflexive response may be “Just don’t have any guns,” it’s not that easy. Guns get passed down. It’s difficult to explain to a concerned family member who just moved you into an unfamiliar neighborhood why you’re refusing to take the pistol they’re handing you.
Coupled with the stigma of admitting that you’re not always certain of your mental health, you’re a part of a culture that demands that guns be the solution to society’s ills. Guns are pressed upon you, either as a tool of survival or a symbol of freedom, an innate right. These two narratives run contradictory to the realization that sometimes handing over your guns is the only way to stay alive.
Released in June, a recent study found a potential link between the enforcement of risk-based firearm seizure laws and a decrease in suicides. Also known as “red flag laws,” such protocols allow concerned parties to petition a judge to temporarily seize guns from anyone deemed to be a threat to themselves or others. Examining such laws already enacted in two states, Dr. Aaron Kivisto, a clinical psychologist with the University of Indianapolis, found that Indiana’s firearm seizure law corresponded with an almost 8 percent reduction in firearm suicides in the decade following its enactment. A similar decline in firearm suicides — almost 14 percent — was seen in Connecticut after enforcement of the law was bolstered in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting.
According to a recent assessment by firearm-centric news site The Trace, 10 states have enacted some form of red flag law, with another nine state legislatures considering similar bills. Among the 31 states that have yet to enact red flag laws is South Carolina. The same state that served as home to a tired man who reached the end of his rope and found a gun hanging there.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
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