Maybe The Hollywood Reporter isn’t the first place you’d think to go for a touching look at the human toll of America’s gun saturation, but yesterday it published a column by the actor Tom Arnold that is exactly that. And in addition to telling a searing personal story about what happens when mental illness and easy access to guns collide, Arnold’s column points to an aspect of this conversation that doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves.
“Like most people who grew up in rural Iowa, I am a gun owner and a supporter of the Second Amendment,” Arnold writes in the first sentence of his article. He grew up hunting with his grandfather, and where he comes from “the start of hunting season is as big as the start of football season.” He is not the sort of person one would be expecting to write a pro-gun-control column, in other words.
But a recent tragedy changed that:
My nephew Spencer was a sweet boy, but he was small, and I’m sure he was picked on. He was kicked out of the Army after attempting suicide. He was diagnosed as chronically depressed and unsafe around weapons. Yet he was able to get a concealed weapon permit from the state of Iowa and buy five guns. Like me, Spencer was a substance abuser. He refused my offer for help with that as well as his mental illness, so I was very concerned. Last fall, when I saw on Facebook that he had joined a crazy, racist, neo-Nazi (I’m Jewish, as is my mom) gun group and videotaped himself showing off, drunkenly shooting his assault rifle and calling President Obama the N-word, I headed to the airport to go see him.
Back in May, Arnold writes, Spencer “said good night to his roommate, said he was excited about going back to college and getting his future going, finally. Then he called a woman he’d been seeing for a couple of months, and they had a little disagreement, so my handsome 24-year-old nephew reached over and grabbed one of the five loaded guns on his nightstand and shot himself in the head.” Spencer’s death spurred Arnold to get involved with the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, and to write his Hollywood Reporter story.
This is a point worth harping on over and over and over: Whatever our thoughts about the issue of gun control, we have a tendency to underrate the connection between easy access to guns and suicide. When we talk about guns, we often focus on homicides — particularly mass shootings and, to a lesser extent, gang violence; these tend to be big, spectacularly violent public events that garner a lot of news coverage. But suicides actually account for more than half of all gun deaths — they just tend to be private events shrouded in stigma, and therefore gun suicides seem to constitute barely a whisper in the cacophonous national debate over guns.
Experts repeatedly pointed me to the guns-suicide connection when I was working on a December story about the National Rifle Association–spurred ban on federal research into guns, which has seriously stalled social scientists’ understanding of how to reduce gun deaths in the United States. “I think in the area of suicide, what has become clear is that a lot of suicides are very impulsive,” Mark Rosenberg, the president and CEO of the Task Force for Global Help and the former head of the CDC’s gun-research efforts, told me. The common cultural script of someone carefully, methodically planning their suicide often doesn’t apply — easy access to firearms can literally be a life-and-death issue, in light of the research showing that there can be as little as five minutes between someone deciding to kill themselves and going through with it.
Or sometimes fewer than five minutes, it seems. It’s impossible to know what Spencer was thinking in the moments before he ended his life, but we should keep that awful sequence — Spencer being excited about college and clearly planning for his future, and later that evening, in a temporary moment of anguish, having the means to end his life literally within arm’s reach — in mind whenever we talk about the toll of guns in the U.S.