How one of the most pro-gun states in the US managed to pass gun reform — with the backing of gun advocates
- Utah recently passed a law aimed at reducing firearm suicides with full backing from gun advocates.
- We, as public health officials, listened to the gun community’s concerns and found evidence-based solutions.
- Public health challenges require diverse partnerships and big-tent approaches to achieve solutions.
- Morissa Henn, DrPH is a Community Health Director at Intermountain Healthcare, based in Salt Lake City, Utah.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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Earlier this month, the Utah Legislature passed HB 267, a bill that gives people the option to voluntarily suspend their ability to purchase guns for a temporary period. The policy is important for people who realize they may experience a future impulse to harm themselves or others and want to reduce their access to a highly fatal method should that occur.
Utah is the third state to pass this evidence-informed policy measure (after Washington and Virginia) but — more remarkably — is the first state to do so with the full backing and collaboration of gun advocates and a highly pro-gun legislature. At a time of broader concerns around political divisions and our current public health crisis, the experience offers clues about how seemingly divergent groups can come together to save lives.
Finding areas of agreement
For many years, Utah has been dedicated to “common ground” solutions around firearm suicide prevention, which we as public health officials believe to be part of the reason our state is finally seeing multi-year declines in its high suicide rate. The do-not-sell list policy built on this momentum, and allowed health professionals, gun advocates, and elected officials to organize around several core principles.
First, we focused on a clear and common goal: no person in a suicidal crisis should have ready access to a firearm. This goal didn’t emerge by agreeing about gun policy or discussing political ideology, but instead acknowledging that we have an immediate opportunity to prevent the 85% of gun deaths in Utah that are suicides.
We also emphasized the temporary aspect of reduced access. This is meant to help keep individuals safe during a relatively brief period of vulnerability, putting time and distance between someone at risk and a highly fatal method of suicide. This approach grows out of international evidence that when widely-used and highly lethal means are made less available or less lethal, suicide rates overall decline by 30-50%.
Another focus was protecting privacy and confidentiality. The gun community didn’t want to be stigmatized for attitudes and behaviors around firearm ownership; similarly, the mental health community emphasized that this needed to avoid perpetuating false tropes around people with mental illness being dangerous.
Finally, we rooted our approach in local stories and values. Stakeholders who supported the bill talked about family members who died with a just-purchased firearm and likely would have been open to signing up during pre-crisis moments of clarity. Those with a history of suicidal ideation talked about how they would want to sign up to relinquish their ability to buy guns — a willingness that appears widespread: a survey of 200 psychiatric patients in Alabama found that 46% would want to sign up.
We need big-tent policy approaches
Public health victories require multi-dimensional, values-aligned, big-tent approaches. Success in reducing motor vehicle deaths in the 20th century didn’t come from addressing only the skills of the driver, but also the safety of cars and roads. My experience working to prevent gun deaths in one of the most gun-friendly states in the country has taught me that embracing diverse partners and working on multiple solutions together is not only possible, but is a strategic necessity.
Urgent and complex public health challenges like COVID-19 require expansive and inclusive solutions. Rather than point fingers or search for silver bullets, our task is to ask ourselves more imaginative and useful questions: what practical steps can we take? How can we avoid framing issues in terms of us vs. them or either/or and focus on both/and opportunities? How can we effectively involve those most personally affected by a problem to inform solutions?
The country will become a much healthier place when we have the empathy to recognize that all people want to keep them themselves and their loved ones safe — and when we have the humility to realize that all people can offer insights to improve the public’s health.
Morissa Henn, DrPH is a Community Health Director at Intermountain Healthcare, based in Salt Lake City, Utah.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.
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