Another avenue that’s been identified is what’s known among public health researchers as the social norms approach. David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and author of “Private Guns, Public Health,” sees a parallel in the successful antidrunk-driving campaigns of the 1980s and ’90s (“Friends don’t let friends drive drunk”). Lives could be saved, he believes, if it was considered socially acceptable, when a friend or family member is dealing with some serious stress in life—like job loss or divorce—to ask them to get rid of their guns temporarily.
Working with a group called the New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition, researchers at Harvard have started trying to promote this kind of thinking by convincing owners of gun shops in New Hampshire to distribute materials asking customers to be attentive to signs of emotional distress among their fellow gun owners, and to consider taking their guns away when they’re having a particularly hard time. “It’s a caring message—it’s not an antigun message,” said Barber. “What I’m hoping is it lights a spark—what I’d love to see is five years from now...the 11th commandment of firearm safety is, ‘If a loved one is at risk for suicide, keep firearms away from them.’”
Does such a campaign have a place in the current debate over how to stop gun violence? According to Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a group that promotes stricter gun control laws, it should, but doesn’t—and that on more than one occasion he has heard people say that when it comes to tallying gun deaths, “suicides don’t count.”
“It’s remarkable how many people discount suicide, as if there’s nothing that can be done about it,” said John Rosenthal, the Boston developer behind the group Stop Handgun Violence, which funds the antigun billboard on the Mass. Pike. He cited one study suggesting that the vast majority of firearm suicides among youth are committed with guns owned by a family member. “Talk about low-hanging fruit.”
But for most people, the possibility that someone they love or they themselves will die by suicide feels much more remote, and less urgent, than the risk of getting shot by an armed robber or a mass murderer like Adam Lanza. As Garen Wintemute, a public health researcher specializing in firearm violence at University of California-Davis, said, “The debate is focused around the threats that people see to themselves, and that only makes sense.”
Yet it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that, even though large-scale atrocities like Newtown are the ones that force us to confront gun violence as a nation, the opportunity to save lives may be greatest in the steady drip of private tragedies that take place every day—one by one, and out of the public eye.
“The whole point is you’ve got innocent people getting killed either way,” said Berman. “These are people who could be helped.”
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.