Invisible victims of gun violence: The majority of North Texas suicides involve a firearm

Stigma surrounding mental health issues among older generations makes seeking help a challenge.

By Caroline Love, KERANovember 16, 2022 11:15 am, ,

From KERA:

Lindsey Encinias thought of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” when her father died.

Encinias’ father took his life with a gun in Arlington on Nov. 10, 1998. He was almost 51. Encinias was 17 years old, and her father was the person she relied on the most.

“He was where I passed go to collect my $200 to figure out which way to turn,” she said. Years later, the Frisco resident still thinks of her father when she hears Taylor’s song about losing his childhood friend to suicide.

I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end.
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.
But I always thought that I’d see you again.

Losing her father to suicide was a shock for Encinias and her family. It’s why she helps other families heal after losing a loved one in Collin County.

For families who are affected by a suicide, the loss — and the grief — are most often a private affair. And that, perhaps, masks a disturbing fact. Suicides account for a significant number of the gun-related deaths in North Texas and across the nation.

A KERA analysis found that guns were involved in the majority of suicides in North Texas in the first half of 2022.

Nicole Golden is the executive director of Texas Gunsense, a nonprofit that advocates for policies that reduce gun violence and deaths. She said the impact of gun violence goes beyond homicides.

“Firearm suicide is part of the crisis of gun violence,” Golden said.

Collin County had 63 suicides, and 44 involved a gun. Tarrant County had 146 suicides the first half of the year — 82 of the victims used a gun. Dallas County also had 146 suicides, and 86 involved a gun.

Most of the gun-related suicides were white men. A KERA analysis of data from the Collin County medical examiner’s office found that white men made up roughly 70% of gun suicides and roughly 20% of the county’s population.

White men are disproportionately represented in gun-related suicides in other North Texas counties too. Roughly one out of every ten Dallas residents are white men, but they account for roughly half of the county’s gun suicides. About 3 out of 5 gun suicides in Tarrant County were white men, but white men make up about 17% of the county’s population.

Collin County had seven gun-related deaths that were ruled homicides from January through June — dramatically fewer than Dallas County, which had 146 gun-related homicides during that time, and Tarrant County, which had 64. Even taking into account Collin County’s much smaller population, its per capita gun homicide rate for the first half of the year was much lower as well. This could be attributed to crime patterns in a more suburban county versus counties that have large urban population centers.

Jacob Wells / KERA News

Lindsey Encinias lost her father to suicide as a teenager. She now works in suicide prevention and volunteers to help families who've lost a loved one to suicide.

Like Encinias’ father, most of the men who took their own lives in Collin County this past year used a gun. One man in his 20s bought the Smith & Wesson .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol he used to kill himself at a sporting goods store. That was about an hour before police received a call about his suicide in a parking garage. The police officer dispatched to the scene reported finding a red folder containing mental health information among his possessions.

A man in his 50s shot himself in the attic of his family home with a Remington semiautomatic 12-gauge shotgun while his wife was working from home. She thought the sound of the gunshot that killed her husband was construction noise. Their young son — one of their four children — found his father when he came home from school.

Dr. Mark Kaplan is a social welfare professor at the University of California Los Angeles who researches suicide in men. He said that is a public health crisis that isn’t talked about enough. Kaplan said men are more likely to die by suicide than women. However, women are almost twice as likely to attempt suicide than men according to 2020 data from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“I’ve been looking at gun suicides for a long time…men are far more likely to use a gun,” Kaplan said.

Middle-aged white men are at the highest risk for taking their own lives, according to the suicide prevention foundation.

2021 Pew research study found that white adults — 36% — were more likely to own a gun than races or ethnicities. And men were more likely to own a gun than women, with about four out of ten saying they owned a firearm, compared to 22% of women.

A higher lethality

Sandy Potter, vice president of behavioral health services at Texas Health Resources, said people who attempt suicide with a gun seldom show up in the emergency rooms she oversees.

Potter said guns have less room for error than other suicide methods.

“There’s less accuracy with overdosing on medications because there’s a lot of variables,” Potter said. “But with a gun, there’s not a lot of variables, right? It’s really, how accurate are you when you fire the gun? And that’s it.”

In June, a Collin County officer reported that a father futilely performed CPR on his adult son who shot himself in the head with a Smith & Wesson 9mm pistol. A teen-ager who shot himself in the head in February with a 9mm Glock 17 handgun initially had a slight pulse and was breathing when emergency personnel arrived. He was transported to a local hospital — where police met his mother. He died not long afterwards.

One Collin County family didn’t even know their loved one owned a gun before he killed himself in January. The elderly victim was known for being adamantly against gun ownership. His adult son worried that his father had used his revolver. But the son’s revolver was still in a locked gun safe, “brand new” and “never fired.”

Kaplan said the presence of a gun in the home increases the likelihood of death.

“The presence of a gun, either in a household or lots of guns in the community, increase the likelihood of a gun death – either homicide, suicide or unintentional,” he said.

Tammy Mahan is the CEO of Collin County’s mental health authority, LifePath Systems. She said the availability of something that can be used in suicide — including guns — increases the risk.

That’s why Mahan said LifePath Systems works with families to remove those temptations. If there’s concern that a loved one may be a suicide risk, prescriptions may be filled only once a week so a potentially fatal amount of pills aren’t available.

One patient had suicidal thoughts involving knives — so her family locked up the knives in their house.

But Mahan said convincing people to give up their firearms is more challenging.

“Guns and Texas — that’s a special conversation,” she said. “Some people are much more hesitant to want anybody to hold their guns because of all of the baggage and the stuff that comes with that.”

But the availability of a gun can make a single suicidal impulse much more lethal. That affects men most, who are more likely to own guns and more likely to use them in a suicide attempt.

People who’ve attempted suicide by taking an overdose, or by slitting their wrists, may have time to reconsider and seek medical help. Or, a loved one may find them and get help in time. But injuries from guns are, more often than not, irreversible.

Impulsive acts

Mahan said suicides often are not planned. Painful life events in combination with mental health issues can be a tipping point.

She said suicide can be a “very impulsive” act for many victims.

“They’re okay. They come in one day, and then maybe, something else happens over the weekend, and they end up making that choice.”

A major life event, such as a divorce, the loss of a loved one, unemployment or bankruptcy can be a catalyst for suicide. Kaplan calls these suicides “deaths of despair.”

Tipping points

Breakups can be the catalyst for suicide. One Collin County man shot himself after he discovered his wife was having an affair.

Another man shot himself outside his ex-girlfriend’s home. After they broke up, she had tried to protect him by removing the bullets from his 9mm Glock before giving it to him.

Asking for help can be a challenge. Potter, who used to be a social worker, said there’s a stigma about admitting to a mental health issue in older generations. And it’s especially hard for older men to reach out for help, even to their loved ones.

“They don’t really talk with their friends about feeling down in the dumps or the pressure, you know, thinking about giving everything up,” she said.

Kaplan said men who take their own lives don’t always have a mental health diagnosis – and those same men are also more likely to use a gun.

“Men are often told, ‘just suck it up,’” Kaplan said. “It’s just like a football coach…They’ll be, ‘don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t complain. Just be stoic.’ And lots of men…truly believe that”

The family of a young Black man in Collin County who fatally shot himself in June didn’t know he had struggled with suicidal thoughts. But he’d privately written about those thoughts in his journals for years.

If someone has hinted about taking their own life, Mahan recommends that family members and friends ask probing and specific questions. Talking about suicide, she said, doesn’t make it more likely to happen. Open communication about it is the best way to help.

Encinias said her father didn’t seek help for his depression before he died.

Helping others is how she honors her father. She educates young people about the signs of suicide at her job at the Grant Haliburton Foundation. And she volunteers with LifePath Systems in Collin County to help people who’ve recently lost someone to suicide.

“If we always keep our hand extended out to someone else, that’s what will continue to move us forward,” Encinias said.

If you or a loved one have suicidal thoughts, here are some resources where help is available:

Call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline

Suicide and Crisis Center of North Texas hotline: 214-828-1000. Or, text “CONNECT” to 741741 anytime to reach volunteers at the National Crisis Text Line.

Collin County
LifePath Systems 877 422-5939

Dallas, Ellis, Hunt, Kaufman, Navarro and Rockwall Counties
North Texas Behavioral Health Authority 866-260-8000

Tarrant County
MHMR of Tarrant County 800-866-2465

Methodology: KERA analyzed data obtained from the medical examiner offices in Dallas, Tarrant and Collin counties for suicides and homicides, Jan. 1-June 30, 2022. The analysis also included data from U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual County Resident Population Estimates by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin: April 1, 2020 to July 1, 2021. Information on specific cases was obtained from police incident reports.

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