Montana’s suicide rate is highest in the U.S., most involving guns

On a typical day, Ali Mullen leaves her job at the Helena County Health Department in Montana to pick up dinner for her three children, returns home to feed them, then returns to watch a violin lesson or a school play. cruising around the small town in his aging SUV, complete with a rainbow bumper sticker that reads “You Are Loved.”

A large package of gummy bears keeps her alive, hidden in her purse alongside a different kind of lifeline: a gun lock that she carries almost everywhere she goes.

In a sparsely populated state where many people own guns, the small metal contraptions, which fit a trigger and cost less than $10 on Amazon, are one way Montanans are trying to reduce the high rate of suicides.

For the past year, Ali, 46, has given away gun locks to anyone who wanted one, his part in solving the puzzle of suicide in Montana.

“It’s in the culture,” she said to Helena one afternoon. “If you don’t know someone, you know someone who’s passed away.”

Murder rates and mass shootings make national headlines, defining the debate over pervasive gun violence. But most gun deaths in America are self-inflicted. There were approximately 27,000 gun suicides in 2022. This was a record, far higher than the 19,500 gun homicides recorded that year.

In the United States, there have been more firearm suicides than firearm homicides each year for the past 25 years. Yet the harm caused to communities by suicides is rarely considered in the national debate over guns.

Over the past three years, Montana’s generally high suicide rate was the highest in the nation, according to a New York Times analysis of federal mortality data. In a state of 1.1 million people, 955 people died by suicide between January 2021 and November 2023. Other Mountain West states, including Wyoming and New Mexico, have also struggled with rates of suicide rates and face many of the same challenges as Montana.

Last year, suicides in Montana and across the country declined to near pre-pandemic levels. But Montana’s suicide rate remains one of the worst in the nation and a source of widespread grief across the state.

Many of these deaths are felt but not visible. Suicide, despite its frequency, can still be shrouded in secrecy and shame. Deaths often occur after a struggle with mental health or substance abuse issues.

Suicidal impulses may only last briefly, but easy access to a gun makes survival more difficult. In Montana, 67% of suicides in 2022 involved a gun, according to the Times analysis. Nationally, firearms were used in about 55 percent of these deaths.

But in a place where guns are ingrained in the wild and frontier spirit, there is little political will to prevent people who are at risk of harm from owning a gun. A proposal to create a “whistleblower” law, which would prohibit a person deemed dangerous to themselves or others from possessing a firearm, has died in a Committee of the state legislature…

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