Rodney Smith, 19, was home on break from the University of Kansas, where he had a football scholarship. He had borrowed a relative’s beat-up Camaro Z28 and was driving his sister, Volante, 14, and two younger children to the party. Boo, as his sister was called, was in the passenger seat.
As the car approached the church on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, someone ran up to it and fired a handgun at Rodney and Boo. Smith’s two children were in body bags being loaded into an ambulance when she got to the scene. It would turn out that the Smiths were killed in a case of mistaken identity.
“They were right where they needed to be,” Smith said of her children, “but somebody had access to a gun, and he shot the wrong kids.”
Smith channeled her grief into a group called Survivors of Homicide Inc., where she works with others who have lost family members and close friends in shootings. Her favorite event is an annual Christmas party she hosts for children who have lost siblings or parents to shootings.
The Smith children were killed in 1993, a time when the District had one of the highest homicide rates in the nation. Even though rates have dropped sharply, Smith knows many families that have suffered from gun homicides. But she said they don’t buy guns as a solution. “That’s a difference in the African American community,” she said. “We don’t teach our kids to go hunting and shoot. We don’t have guns in our homes.”
‘Missing the Point’
Contrasting life experiences, whether from a family member’s suicide or the death of a relative in a homicide, drive the nation’s split over an essential element of the gun debate: Would fewer guns save lives? Survivors of homicide victims consistently tell pollsters that the answer is yes, but the response to suicide is different.
“We have less empathy with those who take their own lives,” said Sean Joe, an expert on suicide and violence at the University of Michigan. “So we don’t have the same national outcry. The key argument for me is that increased access to firearms increases suicide and homicide.”
Scholars say it is no coincidence that the places in the United States with high suicide rates also have high gun ownership rates. By contrast, states with the lowest gun ownership rates tend to have the lowest suicide rates.
Eleanor Hamm works at the statewide suicide hotline for Colorado, which has high rates of gun ownership and suicide. Her suicide-prevention program is accredited by the American Association of Suicidology, yet her experience with guns, which started when she got her first at 6, puts her closer to the NRA than the suicide association.
“The Western region is the highest region in suicide,” she said in an interview. “Out here, we own guns. You’re not ever going to get the guns away from anybody. What we can do is a better job of mental health. That will make a difference.”
Hamm echoed the NRA position, saying that people without access to guns will kill themselves by other means. “It’s easy for the passion of the day to look at gun control,” she said. “It’s missing the point of mental health and what is really truly taking place.”
But experts say that the urge to commit suicide is neither unstoppable nor permanent. “I emphasize that suicide is preventable — treatment works,” said Iliana Gilman, spokeswoman for a crisis hotline in Austin.
The impulse to commit suicide has been described as a trance, and the speed and lethality of a gun make it harder to interrupt the trance. Attempts at suicide are more than 20 times as likely to be fatal when a gun is used.
“They are blinded,” said Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. “They are so focused and tunnel-visioned on ‘I have to end the pain I’m in; I have to end it now.’. . . A firearm is an immediate end to the problem.”
Some experts say mass shootings such as the one in which 20 first-graders and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December can often be seen as extravagant suicides rather than homicidal rampages. And the young man behind that massacre killed himself before he could be apprehended. Preventing these killings, experts say, requires better treatment of mental health problems and limiting access to weapons.
“If I had to choose one thing,” said Joe, the Michigan professor, “I would try to reduce access and availability of firearms. The means matter more.”
By: Dan Keating