Could Keeping Depressed People From Guns Do More Harm Than Good?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader makes several great points along those lines:

You asked about policy measures that could be implemented to help lower rates of gun suicides, in particular whether people with mental illness or a history of suicide should be banned from purchasing firearms. I think that’s an extremely problematic idea for a number of reasons.

One major issue is something the FAA learned re: depression in pilots [link, link]. If you ban people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness from owning guns, I suspect what you’ll end up with is a bunch of gun owners with mental illness that they don’t get treated because they know if they do they’ll be barred from owning and/or purchasing firearms. Discouraging depressed and/or suicidal gun owners from getting help is presumably the opposite of what we want.  

Similarly, I’d expect barring people with a history of suicide from owning and/or purchasing firearms would discourage people from reporting such a history to a therapist or to seeking treatment after an attempt—again, not at all a desirable outcome.

Another is that as a general rule people who are depressed lose interest and pleasure in activities they used to enjoy. So generally one doesn’t want to take away what remaining pleasurable activities they have left to them. If a depressed person enjoys shooting, the risk that they will commit suicide needs to be weighed against the risk that taking away something they enjoy will worsen that depression. That’s going to vary from person to person—if their risk of suicide is very low, letting them continue to pursue an activity that they derive enjoyment from might be the lesser risk.

My question: If a gun owner is concerned that they or someone in their household has been considering suicide, then what? A Google search suggests that at least in some states, they can call the police and ask them to store their firearms for a certain period of time no questions asked, but it’s not clear to me whether this is universally the case. One thought I have is that there needs to be a way for people who are thinking of killing themselves (or who are worried about another member of the family) to quickly and easily get all the guns out of their house, one with no legal ramifications or hoops to jump through before retrieval that might discourage people from using it, and that this fact needs to be widely publicized so that all gun owners know it’s an option.

Any other suggestions? Update from a reader:

Your response to the guy who wrote about the (imagined) dangers of taking guns away from people who are suicidal left me stunned. I don’t think you have thought this through. We have numerous examples of people whose behavior proves exactly the opposite. Let’s start with Adam Lanza, a mentally disturbed and suicidal young man, whose mother thought she was doing the right thing to encourage his gun obsession. Or James Holmes, who assembled an arsenal off the internet.  We all know what happened there. 

I wonder how many parents or friends of people who pulled the trigger on themselves believe that having easy access to a gun helped their family member.  But remember too that a significant proportion are also a danger to their family and friends. Murder suicides are pretty common, especially within families. I’ll bet there isn’t a community in the U.S. that has escaped a situation where one family member killed the rest of the family before turning the gun on themselves, or where a workplace hasn’t been shot up by a deranged individual. While mass murders beyond the immediate family that end in the suicide of the shooter are less common, it’s hard to consider them rare. 

Mentally ill people should have zero access to guns. Period. I can’t imagine how anyone can make the argument that a depressed, mentally ill, and paranoid individual is better off with continued easy access to guns. That anyone would consider what your reader said as sensible only goes to show how far we have gone off the deep end.