by Liz Seymour
When I was in second grade my whole class made ashtrays for Christmas. Everybody’s parents smoked. Grown-ups would send their kids to the corner store to buy a pack of Winstons or Tareytons. The copies of Time and the Ladies’ Home Journal on the coffee table were filled with cheerful ads showing people making their daily lives better with cigarettes. And then 50 years ago the Surgeon General’s office issued its report on smoking and health and things began to shift. Cigarettes remained — and remain — legal, but the culture around smoking changed dramatically. Second-graders no longer gave their parents ashtrays for Christmas and doctors no longer smoked their way through medical consultations (yes, that used to happen too). Hundreds of thousands of people who would have died of tobacco-related diseases didn’t.
What will it take for us to apply the same national will to guns? Every time there’s another mass shooting we line up on either side and post and re-post angry things on social media and then stagnate into theoretical issues of constitutional rights and personal responsibility. And people go on dying.
The cost of our American gun culture became painfully personal to me this past January when my beautiful, funny, smart sister Mary lost her way in the depths of a bipolar depression that her disease told her would never end. One chilly winter afternoon she lay down on her bed and shot herself in the head with a gun she had purchased earlier that day.
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Something important to know about suicide by gun: At an 85 percent fatality rate it is by far the most effective method out there. The vast majority of those who survive a suicide attempt will never try it again, but once a gun enters the mix there are very few second chances.
Another thing to know about gun suicides: They are extremely common — more common than gun homicides, more common than accidental shootings and much, much more common than the terrible mass gun killings that dominate the headlines. Just look at the numbers: In 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control, more than two-thirds of all gun deaths in the United States were suicides — 21,175 in all. That comes out to an average of 58 gun suicides a day. A day.
It has become commonplace within the medical community to define access to guns as a public health issue — so much so that the connection between guns and public health has stirred up a powerful backlash from the National Rifle Association.
Four years ago conservatives in Florida pre-emptively passed the so-called ”docs vs. Glocks” law that makes it illegal for doctors to ask their patients about gun ownership. Similarly, Dr. Vivek Murthy’s nomination for surgeon general was held up for almost 18 months largely by an NRA campaign that labeled him “President Obama’s radically anti-gun nominee.” His crime? Having tweeted, “Tired of politicians playing politics w/ guns, putting lives at risk b/c they’re scared of NRA. Guns are a healthcare issue.” Gun advocates went, well, ballistic. By the time he was finally confirmed in December of last year, Murthy had backed so far down as to promise that he would not use the surgeon general’s office as a “bully pulpit for gun control.” His position now is that we need more “common sense.”
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It’s an odd part of the grief process, or the healing process, or whatever damn and unasked-for process I’m in the middle of right now, that every time I read a date a little clock in my head starts running backwards to where Mary was and what she was doing at that time. In May 2011, the month “docs vs. Glocks” was signed into law in Florida, Mary was starting a blog called Galloping Mind, subtitled “Musings on horses, humans, and life.” In the first entry she wrote about returning to horseback riding after a 25-year hiatus.
“I almost gave up,” she wrote, “but I sensed I would lose a lot more than a future with horses if I did. I’d be losing the self I was just beginning to construct — not the fearless girl who rode her pony bareback around fields at a gallop, but someone brave in a different way: a woman who was finding her own way, daring to be a beginner again, making peace with discomfort, and letting go of illusions.”
Mary returned to riding in her forties. Months before her 50th birthday she left a writing and editing job in Massachusetts, sold her house and moved to Greensboro where her two sisters lived. It was the end of 2008, which, as it turned out, was a terrible time to be making a change. Once she arrived in Greensboro, Mary couldn’t find another editing job; she ended up working in retail for $7.50 an hour and freelance writing on the side. One of her freelance articles was a wry, funny piece about her job search; that article led to a conversation with North Carolina Public Radio’s “The Story with Dick Gordon” about being a middle-aged, college-educated woman caught short in the recession. It made for great radio, but it was Mary’s own life and she was scared. One evening we sat on a bench in the Greensboro Arboretum while she cried and cried.
“I’m so tired of being plucky,” she said. Shortly after that she pluckily applied to graduate school.
In October 2012 when Vivek Murthy sent out his tweet about guns, Mary was a couple of months into a job she loved at the Mental Health Association in Greensboro. In May of that year she had graduated with a master’s degree in counseling from UNCG. Two months before that our other sister Abigail and I had forcibly taken Mary to the emergency room at Wesley Long Hospital.
“I tried to bolt,” Mary wrote later, “but my boyfriend pinned me in his arms and carried me, kicking and pummeling, to his car. I understood in a thunderburst of clarity that this was a cosmic test. The universal force that was giving me orders would show me how to surmount this newest obstacle. It would all become part of my enduring myth as the next Dalai Lama.”
Mary told us later that she had not taken her lithium for several months — whether she had stopped accidentally, stopped on purpose, or stopped accidentally-on-purpose even she didn’t know for sure. Once back on the lithium she returned quickly to center.
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