Young adults in Minnesota are more likely to die by suicide than any other age group. Furthermore, death by suicide is the second leading cause of death among Minnesotans aged 10-24. Approximately 70% of adolescents who die of suicide die by their first attempt without a history of mental illness. Some of the main issues associated with this problem include the lack of adequate mental health services in schools, the inherent vulnerability of adolescents to suicidal ideation and easy access to firearms. While all of these factors require our urgent attention, my focus here is on the easy access to firearms, because recent research affirms that most teens who die by firearm suicide are doing so with a gun owned by a parent or family member.
To be clear, I am not an expert in gun laws or a legal professional. I am a doctor. And while it might seem out of place for doctors to talk about politics and laws, we do know how the human brain works. And that the development of the brain is a grey area in the gun law debate and merits a medical point of view. That point of view starts with addressing the question of why adolescents are inherently at greater risk of death by suicide than any other age group.
The human brain does not develop until the mid to late 20s. New research from Stanford Medicine shows that adults use mainly the brain’s prefrontal cortex to think — and the prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain responsible for rational decision-making. It helps process situations/stressors with sound judgment and understanding of longstanding consequences of our actions.
On the other hand, adolescents think mainly with their amygdala, the brain’s emotional center, which makes them more susceptible to emotional outburst and impulsiveness. It also makes them more likely to make irrational decisions at any given time, irrespective of intelligence or learned knowledge.
For this reason, we need better, stronger legislation around the storage of firearms in homes with children as well as restrictions that prevent teens from accessing any type of firearm without adult supervision, even when proper safety training has been learned and practiced.
But what does the safe storage of weapons look like, and how do we efficiently regulate access to firearms by adolescents?
The most ideal and reliable scenario would be no firearms in homes; this eliminates the chance of accidental gun injury to children and dramatically reduces the risk of suicide among adolescents. However, we do not live in an ideal world, and some families are going to have guns in their homes. After all, individual liberties are a core value in this nation. So, a more realistic solution would help address the issue with stronger gun storage laws.
Minnesota currently has no storage law at all, but we do have the Child Access Prevention law (CAP), which finds a person liable when they store a loaded firearm where they know an adolescent can reach it. Unfortunately, this law depends on people to make their own sound judgments — and so far, it’s not working. Just as wearing seat belts is enforced by law in order to improve the safety of every driver and passenger, as well as to reduce burden on the health care system, a similar approach is required to ensure safe gun storage to mitigate preventable gun injuries and death. Some states have already adopted approaches to standardize gun storage design, requiring certain conditions to be met for a gun to be lawfully stored in a home.
Massachusetts offers an example. This state has enacted laudable gun storage laws and has adolescent suicide rates well below the national average. Massachussets’ gun storage law is simple and clear, requiring that all firearms to be stored with a lock in place, and that all firearms dealers educate their customers about the gun storage law, including the risks of having a gun in the home. Massachusetts’ law has specified standards for storage design, and these standards must be met in order for a gun to be lawfully stored in a home. Despite being a popular ruling in Massachusetts, the gun storage law did face resistance and litigation from gun rights proponents, as any gun control measures do. But the Massachusetts Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the Second Amendment does not override the state’s policy to require owners to store guns safely.
Although the Massachusetts gun storage law does serve as the best next step in limiting access to guns by teens, Minnesota could go a little further by increasing the legal age to purchase firearms in the state, based on a recent poll showing that approximately 69% of Minnesotan voters support increasing the minimum legal age to purchase guns to 21 years. Such overwhelming public support makes this a unique moment to pass effective gun control measures.
Of all the life-threatening scenarios I have seen in medicine practice, few are as fatal as putting a bullet in one’s head. And, unfortunately, patients with suicidal ideation are rarely identified in time–a challenge further amplified with adolescents due to their inherent impulsiveness and unpredictability. Therefore, I believe it is imperative that we limit adolescent access to firearms as an urgent suicide prevention strategy.