In the year 2016, 45 percent more people committed suicide in Kansas than did in 1999. In Missouri that figure was 36 percent more. The national average was 25 percent.
In Kansas, the most instinctive response for legislators like State Senator Barbara Bollier of Mission Hills was to promote gun control. “When you look at suicides, people who attempt suicide if they use a firearm are 80 percent likely to succeed,” Bollier told the Wichita Eagle.
Bollier has introduced what is called “red flag” legislation several times already. If enacted, the law would give that give courts and the police the ability to remove guns from individuals who are judged to be a threat to themselves.
Given that she is running for re-election, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri steered clear of gun control legislation and lobbied instead, not surprisingly, for more funding. The money would be used to support rural help lines and suicide training for farm advocates.
A closer look at the numbers, however, suggests that the spike in Kansas suicide rates may have more to do with the aging of the Kansas population than any other variable. Between 1990 and 2016, for instance, the percentage of Americans over 65 tracks very closely to the increase in suicide over that time: a 25 percent increase in suicides and 22 percent increase in people over 65.
This matters because men over 65 are the ones most likely to commit suicide. For all the talk of teenage suicide, men over 65 are twice as likely as teenage boys to commit suicide on a per capita basis. In Kansas, the percent of the population over 65 matches that of the nation, but the concentration is highest in the rural counties where most men have easy access to guns.
Men in general are at more risk than women, not in attempting suicide but in succeeding. Although women are twice as likely to attempt suicide, men succeed because they generally use guns. Men make up 84 percent of the suicides among those with no known mental health condition and 69 percent of those with a known condition.
Before taking guns away or investing in help lines, lawmakers might try to discourage behaviors that lead to suicide. One is substance abuse. Some 28 percent of the cases in which there was no obvious mental health issues involved drug or alcohol abuse.
Another, more direct step would be for America’s progressives to stop promoting assisted suicide. Seven states now authorize physician-assisted suicide. In Oregon, the enabling law is called “Death with Dignity.” More than 1300 people have exited this life with the state’s blessing.
In a triumph of mixed messaging, Time magazine recently ran a glowing portrait of an elderly Oregon couple who committed suicide together by physician-assisted injection. The couple’s daughter recorded their deaths and is making a movie about it. “It just takes such a huge amount of internal strength and self-knowing to face that choice, to make that choice and then bring along all the people that love you and are going to miss you,” a suicide advocate told Time.
Admittedly, a suicide by gun is messier than by needle, but in rural Kansas friends and family of the deceased know better than to celebrate the suicide or make a movie about it.