Published: March 8, 2013
To his large, loving family and many friends, Kerry Lewiecki was an optimist and problem-solver, with a big laugh and impressive hugs. Early in the summer of 2010, he graduated from the University of Oregon with dual degrees in law and conflict resolution; invitations went out for his August wedding to his
Then, just a few weeks later, within the span of a few hours, he bought a gun and shot and killed himself, at age 27. His father, Mike, a doctor in Albuquerque, who still chokes up when he recalls that day, said: “We had no clue he was desperate. I don’t think he’d ever shot a gun before.”
Support for stricter gun laws is growing, impelled by a year of grisly mass murders — at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and, most recently, by a vengeful former policeman in California. Last month, President Obama kicked off a continuing national debate by proposing an array of new policies, including an assault weapons ban, an expansion of background checks and restrictions on high-capacity magazines.
But more than 60 percent of gun-related deaths in the United States are suicides, like Mr. Lewiecki’s. Reducing that statistic will most likely take different interventions than are currently proposed — like waiting periods and safe storage requirements — and those are not even on the table.
While background checks might turn up people with severe mental illness who have been prone to violence, gun suicides are often committed by people whose history doesn’t suggest a serious problem. In studies, a quarter to a third of those who killed themselves were not in contact with a psychiatrist at the time of
death, and the majority were not on psychiatric medicines. “The first time the family may know of the distress is when they kill themselves,” said Dr. David Gunnell, a suicide epidemiologist at the University of Bristol in England. There may be no red flags and little forethought. To carry out a campus killing rampage, perpetrators collect weapons, identify victims and select
locations. In contrast, suicides are often solitary, impulsive acts, experts say.
That is why a cornerstone of suicide prevention is simple: “restricting access to common and particularly lethal means for everyone — we know that’s effective,” said Dan Reidenberg, executive director of SAVE (Suicide Awareness and Voices
of Education), a national suicide prevention group.