Approved choices

In a Washington Post editorial,  Jennifer Stuber, associate professor of public policy at the University of Washington, writes about the suicide of her husband and her conversations with gun-rights groups in her state to seek legislation to reduce the number of people who kill themselves with firearms each year.  The article is titled, “My husband died by suicide. Here’s what happened during my awkward call with the NRA.”

Suicide is properly speaking a tragedy, a death that results from the choices—generally assumed to be bad—made by the person who dies.  And of the more than 40,000 suicides annually in the United States, about half are done with firearms.  To Stuber, this is a call to action, but if action is to be both effective and just, we have to act with deliberation.

With that caution in mind, I empathize with her over her grief.  At the same time, when she says, “For too long, we’ve allowed the debate over legal rights to dominate the conversation. It’s time to give equal emphasis to what we have in common, including the grief we all feel over suicide,” I insist that we take a step back.  The errors in her statement cannot be allowed to pass without comment.

The claim that the debate is about “legal rights” shows a misconception about rights generally.  Legal rights are those conferred by contractual agreement.  Gun rights derive from our inherent human rights to own property and to defend our lives.  When someone tells me that our basic rights are essentially privileges, I can’t see how that person and I can come to an agreement.  We are headed in opposite directions.

Stuber’s argument also commits multiple faulty appeals to emotion.  Yes, the deaths of our fellow human beings is the cause for grief, and her anger at “a society that made it easy to buy a pistol” is understandable, but good public policy isn’t shaped by feelings—see the USA PATRIOT Act as an illustration of this.  She also betrays her position when she says that a drug overdose is a less violent means of committing suicide.  This makes her argument appear to be one of squeamishness, one concerned primarily with how messy the method is.

All of that being said, the legislation that was worked out in the State of Washington—with support from the NRA and the Second Amendment Foundation, among others—is something that is reasonable, though likely limited in effect.  Gun ranges and stores are asked to post messages about suicide prevention, and their participation is voluntary.  The documents that come with guns and the material covered in hunter safety courses will include similar statements.  A program to distribute storage devices for guns will be created.

All of that is good as far as it goes, but I have to wonder what will be the next step when it proves not to be enough.  Storage devices can prevent unauthorized persons from using the stored gun to commit suicide, but they will do nothing to stop the gun’s owner.

But a fundamental question here is who owns each of us.  The concept of autonomy and property depends on a recognition that we have the right to do with ourselves and our belongings as we choose.  If we accept that on principle, it’s hard to argue that it is society’s place to make decisions for us.  Washington State has an assisted suicide provision in its laws, suggesting that in this most basic choice, Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” question, the official position is that you may make such choices as you wish, so long as you get approval first.

I am a supporter of offering help to those in need, and in that regard, I would stand enthusiastically with Stuber if she promotes mental healthcare for all.  But the subject of rights is not something to be dismissed, and when she waves it away, she creates doubts in my mind about her intentions.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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