Cory Booker Calls for Suicide Czar, Additional Training to Reduce Gun Suicide Deaths

Senator Cory Booker unveiled a new series of proposals to tackle the increase in the number of gun suicides, which claim more than 20,000 lives every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This followed a broader set of proposals that Booker, who is running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, released last week to address the overarching problem of gun violence.

As president, Booker said he would "appoint and empower" a suicide czar to act as a point person on anti-suicide initiatives, giving prominence to an issue that has often been overshadowed by other forms of gun violence, such as mass shootings. The proposal noted that "federal staff and resources charged with combatting suicide are spread across multiple agencies and programs," which inhibits effective coordination of efforts to reduce these kinds of deaths.

Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States and the second-leading cause of death in adolescents, teenagers and young adults. Firearm suicides account for the majority of deaths by suicide, occurring nearly twice as often as the second-leading method of suicide, according to CDC data.

Booker put forth an array of additional reforms that would implicate nearly every entity involved after the first point of suicidal thought, from gun sellers to health care professionals. As in his previous proposals, the senator renewed a call for federal licensing requirements for gun owners. Though often thought of as a way to prevent likely criminals from obtaining weapons, such a program would incidentally benefit efforts to reduce gun suicides.

A 2005 study found that 87 percent of suicides in teenagers and young adults occurred, from initial thoughts to completion, within an eight-hour window. Since licensing programs entail paperwork, background checks and waiting periods, a nationwide licensing requirement would forestall attempts to purchase a gun in the haste of thinking about suicide or planning it.

Additionally, Booker's proposal would dedicate resources to train mental health professionals who come into contact with potentially suicidal patients. Despite their frequent interaction with the health care system—64 percent of people who have attempted suicide visited a health care professional in the month leading up to their attempt, per a 2015 study—the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention found that there were no requirements for mental health professionals "to have any sort of training to address and treat suicidal ideation."

Booker said he would address this deficiency by expanding initiatives that train and educate health care professionals on "lethal means safety counseling," a series of best practices for identifying and triaging patients who are at risk of taking their lives.

The risk of suicidal behavior is especially acute within the veteran community. The incidence of suicide among veterans is one-and-a-half times as large as the rate among nonveterans, and the suicide rate for veterans has increased faster than for their nonveteran counterparts, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Booker's proposal noted the specific suicide risk that veterans face, though he did not specify any measures that would target the veteran community.

Other reforms called for in Booker's proposal included enhanced safe-storage requirements for gun owners and the nationwide adoption of extreme risk laws, which allow the temporary confiscation of a weapon if a third-party believes it would be used to cause someone immediate harm.

If you have thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 800-273-8255. The line is available 24 hours every day.

This article has been updated to correctly cite the study which documented the timeline for suicide attempts.