Editorial: Gun advocates hurt their own cause by opposing suicide prevention

During the first week of December, lawyers representing Anne Arundel County are set to square off against their counterparts employed by the gun rights group, Maryland Shall Issue Inc., in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit to argue over a matter that, frankly, boggles the mind.

Early last year, Republicans and Democrats on the Anne Arundel County Council unanimously approved an ordinance requiring gun sellers to distribute, with each purchase, literature on suicide prevention and conflict resolution. With any other product that carries some danger, this would be regarded as standard, precautionary stuff. But Maryland Shall Issue took the matter to court, where the ordinance was nevertheless upheld by U.S. District Judge Stephanie Gallagher who found, among other things, that the pamphlets were accurate and unbiased. But that wasn’t good enough for the gun rights advocates, who filed an appeal.

So here’s where things stand. The plaintiffs claim that informing customers about how best to keep their guns safe from people who might self-harm is an intolerable infringement of their First Amendment rights.

Have we really come to the point in society where this modest effort to explain the symptoms of depression and other potential red flags to purchasers of deadly weapons can somehow be regarded as unreasonable? This isn’t just some theoretical conversation. In 2021, there were a record 26,328 gun-related suicides in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, outpacing all other forms of suicide combined. What is the burden of handing out a few pages if it will save just one life, let alone thousands? Are dealers worried that gun buyers might reconsider their purchases?

Surely, this clear indifference to suicide is some kind of ailment, too. Gun rights absolutists have become so entrenched in their war that they have lost touch with their humanity. No constitutional right is absolute. We may have a First Amendment guarantee of free speech, but it’s still against the law to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater to see someone get trampled to death. And while Maryland Shall Issue may well rouse their core supporters with their fiery rhetoric, what is the cost to the cause of gun rights? How can people with more moderate views — who support gun ownership, but acknowledge a need for regulations to protect public safety — find any common ground here? What’s next? Will nutritional information be stricken from packaged food on First Amendment grounds? Informing people about gun locks isn’t political speech, it’s common-sense speech. If anything, it represents an additional sales opportunity for a gun store.

Liberals are capable of extremism in these matters as well. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s recent decision to declare gun violence a public health emergency and issue a 30-day gun carry ban might have been personally satisfying, but it probably set back the cause of gun control given the slim legal grounds she employed. And it came as no surprise when a federal judge temporarily halted the move on Wednesday just five days after the executive order rolled out.

Here in Baltimore, where a flood of firearms has long posed an existential threat, there’s something especially galling about spending who knows how many thousands of dollars to have lawyers file motions to deny gun buyers advice like how it might be wise if “you are going through a difficult time” to consider giving firearms or gunlock keys to a “trusted family member or friend.” Such disinterest in the growing threat of suicide by firearm probably requires something more than lawyers to fix.