Kansas lawmakers say guns shouldn’t be blamed in spiking youth suicide rates

By: - September 1, 2023 11:53 am

Lawmakers on a mental health committee said researchers should look at suicide causes, not methods during an Aug. 24 mental health conference. (Aristide Economopoulos for New Jersey Monitor)

TOPEKA — Though firearm deaths make up a significant number of youth suicides in the state, lawmakers on a mental health committee rejected recommendations for gun safety measures, asking instead to look at social media and the internet.

“We need to focus not so much on the tool as we do the reason,” said Rep. Doug Blex, R-Independence, during the Aug. 24 meeting. “The reason is what causes people to pull the trigger so to speak, and sometimes we get overboard with thinking that if we take away the tool, that’s going to solve the problem.”

Kansas suicide rates have spiked in recent years. The overall rate of suicide in Kansas increased 65% between 2001 and 2020. Child suicide attempts in Kansas led to a 68% increase in emergency department visits between 2019 to 2021, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment statistics.

After questioning suicide data presenters on the causes of youth depression, Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, pulled out her phone during the meeting.

“I can’t believe the stuff that goes on in this little thing,” McGinn said. “They’re tracking each other, all kinds of strange stuff. I just wonder if you’ve been doing any studies about what’s on phones and how much kids are using that?”

The state had the 10th-highest suicide rate in the U.S. for youths between ages 15-24 and the 11th-highest for youths between ages 10-14 in the 2016-2020 time period, according to a Kansas Health Institute study. During that time frame, 60.9% of male youths who died by suicide used a firearm, while 24.2% of female deaths by suicide were firearm-related.

The overall firearm suicide rate continue to increase in 2021, rising 12.4%. Nationally, more than 50% of suicides were committed with firearms in 2021.

The Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 988.

Crisis Text Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak with a trained listener, text HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7, and confidential.

“As a kid, I grew up with firearms all around,” Blex said. “Every truck, every pick-up truck at school, we even took them on the school bus — nobody thought of shooting someone else. It was so rare. So there’s another reason, it’s just not the tool.”

Wyatt Beckman, senior analyst for the Kansas Health Institute, said the lethal nature of firearms meant someone could decide and carry out suicide quickly, with a high rate of success.

“When the means are very lethal and the time between deciding and acting is very quick, then the lethality of those means and the ease of access to those means to act on that decision become a way we can think about prevention while still working to understand why,” Beckman said.

To combat the state’s increased suicide rates, several federal funding grants have been implemented. Gov. Laura Kelly announced in June that the state will receive more than $3.6 million as part of a five-year federal grant for youth suicide prevention.

Earlier funding received in 2020, the Zero Suicide in Health Care Systems grant, awarded the Kansas Department of Health and Environment with a five year grant offering $700,000 per year.

KDHE epidemiologist Lauren Gracy provided updates on the Zero Suicide Program in a Aug. 24 presentation to lawmakers. Gracy said 35,643 Kansans have been screened for suicide ideation so far, and the program has distributed 2,044 gun locks.

Following suicide data presentations, Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, recommended lawmakers look at safe storage programs for firearms.

Committee chair Sen. Beverly Gossage, R-Eudora, said she didn’t feel the recommendation was useful. Lawmakers voted to not accept the recommendation.

“The KDHE reported that they distributed 947 lockboxes and 2,044 gun locks,” Gossage said. “That’s not a recommendation I would support.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

A graduate of Louisiana State University, Rachel Mipro has covered state government in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. She and her fellow team of journalists were 2022 Goldsmith Prize Semi-Finalists for their work featuring the rise of the KKK in northern Louisiana, following racially-motivated shootings in 1960. With her move to the Midwest, Rachel is now turning her focus toward issues within Kansas public policies.