NOEL KING, HOST:
All right. Here in the U.S., when we talk about gun violence, we usually talk about homicides. But two-thirds of gun deaths in this country are caused by suicide, by people deliberately harming themselves. As North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, even many pro-gun activists say something has to be done to make gun culture less dangerous.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: When Dorothy Paugh was 9, her father bought a pistol and started talking openly about ending his life. Her mother was terrified but didn't know what to do.
DOROTHY PAUGH: She called our priest, and she called his best friend. And they came, and they talked to him. And they didn't ask to take his gun away.
MANN: Her father killed himself when he was just 51 years old. Then, six years ago, Paugh's son, Peter, bought a pistol. He walked to a nearby park and shot himself. He was 25 years old when he died.
PAUGH: It was so shattering, so catastrophic. He made a 911 call to the police because he said he didn't want any children to come upon the gun and his body.
MANN: We're hearing Dorothy Paugh's story because this happens a lot in America. Using the latest data, the Centers for Disease Control found that over a single decade, nearly 220,000 Americans shot themselves to death. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., with firearms accounting for half of those fatalities.
PAUL NESTADT: As I looked into suicide more and more, it became very clear that access to lethal means, specifically guns, was one of the most important risk factors that we could address.
MANN: Paul Nestadt is a psychiatrist and suicide researcher at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. He says suicide attempts are fairly common in the U.S. Having a gun in the home or workplace makes them far more likely to succeed.
NESTADT: So a firearm ends in death in a suicide attempt about 85 percent of the time compared to something like poisoning, which only ends in death about 2 percent of the time.
MANN: Suicide is almost always a really impulsive act, Nestadt says. Research shows that if you limit access to firearms, even for a short time, people usually don't go looking for other ways to harm themselves. Also people who survive one suicide attempt rarely try again. He and other researchers have found that people most at risk tend to be white men in America's small towns.
NESTADT: Since it tends to be more rural, more white, definitely more male, somewhat older that have more firearms, they also have the higher suicide rate by firearms.
MANN: People in gun culture don't dispute these statistics. But for years, they've downplayed the risks, arguing that guns actually make you safer if they're in the hands of good people. But the reluctance to acknowledge the danger for average law-abiding gun owners - that's starting to change.
ALAN GOTTLIEB: It's touched close to me.
MANN: Alan Gottlieb is founder of one of the oldest gun rights groups in the U.S., the Second Amendment Foundation based in Washington state. He says one of his employees shot and killed himself.
GOTTLIEB: We, of all people, would like to solve this problem, you know, more than anybody. It would surely help us in the gun debate from our side and, likewise, would save a lot of lives.
MANN: Gottlieb opposes most gun control efforts. He thinks education is the way to curb the more than 20,000 firearm suicides each year.
GOTTLIEB: Our hunter safety manual now talks about suicide prevention in it. Our concealed-weapon permits - when people get renewals in the state of Washington, there'll be messages on suicide prevention.
MANN: After her son's death in 2012, Dorothy Paugh emerged as a leading gun control activist in Maryland. She wants the message to gun buyers to be even more blunt.
PAUGH: I really wanted to shake that notion, which is marketing hype, that guns make people safer because the vast majority of the time, that it is just not true.
MANN: But Paugh does credit gun rights groups for doing more to raise awareness and says they've shown flexibility when it comes to suicide prevention. She points to a so-called red flag law that she helped push through Maryland's legislature this year. These laws allow police to temporarily confiscate guns from people who may be at risk.
PAUGH: The state NRA did not oppose what finally came out. And the governor had spoken up, and he's a Republican, you know? Let's get this done.
MANN: These efforts to curb gun suicide are new and still untested. With so many firearms already in American homes, the truth is that no one knows whether modest measures, like education and red flag laws, will put a serious dent in a suicide rate that continues to rise.
Brian Mann, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARIA HOLLOWAY'S "RAIN")
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