WASHINGTON -- When faith leaders sat down with Vice President Joe Biden last week to talk about the next steps in advancing gun control legislation, they discussed the usual issues like background checks and gun trafficking. But one aspect of gun violence came up that united the group in a deeper way, according to one of the attendees, and it's an issue that's getting hardly any attention on Capitol Hill: suicide.
"That's when the meeting became emotional for a lot of folks," said Pastor Michael McBride, director of PICO National Network's Lifelines to Healing Campaign and one of the 15 or so participants in the private sit-down with Biden.
"The tone of the conversation was very profound in there for a few moments," McBride said. "Quite frankly, the stories of the people most impacted by gun violence are what's going to carry the day. There's a gridlock in D.C. that can be melted away by the passion of people's personal stories."
There should be plenty of personal stories to go around. More than 19,000 of the 31,000 deaths from guns in the United States in 2010 were suicides, far more than the number of homicides or unintended shooting deaths. The overall suicide rate is rising so rapidly that it now outnumbers deaths from car crashes. Most recently, health officials noted a startling spike in suicides among middle-aged Americans: they have jumped by 28 percent from 1999 to 2010.
The issue hit close to home for at least one of the faith leaders in Biden's meeting, who spoke of losing a close family friend to suicide by gun. Other leaders of different faiths shared stories about being on the other end of a phone call consoling a member of the community who had lost a loved one to a gun-related suicide.
"I think it speaks again to the ways in which society is literally saturated with weapons," said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, who attended the meeting with Biden. "It creates situations in which suffering and despair can lead to tragedy."
Despite suicide being the leading cause of gun deaths, the subject has been all but ignored in the months-long gun debate on Capitol Hill. It's hardly ever mentioned in speeches, and when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) brought up the gun reform bill last month, it didn't contain any provisions relating to suicide prevention. The bill ultimately went down, but not before Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) offered an amendment that would, among other things, provide grants for suicide prevention programs and create a national Suicide Prevention Technical Assistance Center. In a show of just how much support there is for mental health issues when they do come up, the amendment passed 95 to 2.
Experts on suicide are divided on whether the issue should be more central to the gun debate, which is likely to carry on into the 2014 election cycle. On the one hand, as any lobbyist will tell you, the best way to advance your cause is to try to attach it to whatever legislation is moving in Congress. On the other hand, pushing for more funding for suicide prevention in the middle of a politically charged gun debate spurred by the Newtown, Conn., shooting massacre could be damaging -- and fuel the stigma of mental illness.
"My gut feeling is that it's not the right vehicle because it would poison the message," said Cathy Barber, co-founder of the National Center for Suicide Prevention Training and director of the Means Matter Campaign, a suicide prevention project under the Harvard School of Public Health.
"When it comes up in the context of the gun legislation debate, it immediately turns off gun owners. Gun owners are the group that needs this information and they need it presented in a neutral way that isn't, 'Oh, here's another horrible thing about guns,'" said Barber. "It needs to be characterized more by suicide groups and gun-owning groups. That gives it a more trusted message with a trustworthy messenger."
Robert Gebbia, executive director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, disagreed.
"I think it's a good idea" to highlight the issue in the gun debate, Gebbia said. "I don't think it's a diversion at all. Like it or not, it's part of the debate because about 19,000 people use a firearm to take their life every year. We're already there."
Both believe that if lawmakers really want to decrease suicides and gun violence, there are some relatively simple things they could do. Barber said Congress could enact the national strategy for suicide prevention put forward last fall by the U.S. Surgeon General and the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. Among other things, the plan calls for educating families to store firearms locked and unloaded, with ammunition locked separately, if a household member is at high risk for suicide.
"When someone is suicidal, it's often impulsive," Gebbia said. "So anything that removes access, whether it's safe storage or not having a gun in a home where someone is depressed ... may change their mind."
Gebbia also said lawmakers could fund some of the more innovative programs targeting suicide and gun violence, such as one campaign in New Hampshire that involves gun shops displaying literature to alert people to signs of suicidal behavior in friends and family members. The campaign responds directly to statistics showing nearly 10 percent of gun-related suicides in that state were committed with a gun purchased within a week of the suicide.
The reality, though, is that congressional leaders don't appear to be making mental health issues, never mind the epidemic of suicide, much of a priority outside of the gun debate. A Senate Democratic leadership aide said he wasn't aware of any related legislation this year. House Republican leadership aides pointed to work being done by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees health issues. That committee has held a couple of subcommittee hearings relating to mental illness, but there are no signs of any bills heading to the floor. A committee spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
Carolyn Reinach Wolf is a New York lawyer who runs the nation's only mental health legal practice that works with schools to identify "red flag behavior" among students. She lamented that "Washington is missing the big picture" by attempting to stem violence without addressing mental health as a standalone issue.
"The conversation needs to change. We need to have a discussion about people with mental health issues and how we get them into treatment to lead more normal lives. In turn, I believe, there will be less acting out, less violence by definition," Wolf said. "Think about it: someone who is mentally stable doesn't walk into an elementary school and shoot little children between the eyes. It just doesn't happen."