This story contains references to suicide. If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text TALK to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Federal lawmakers this week took a step toward the first major update to gun safety law in a generation.

Lawmakers were pressured to address the nation’s epidemic of gun violence after last month’s mass shootings at a Texas elementary school and a grocery store in a Black neighborhood in New York. But the legislation could provide new tools for addressing the most common cause of gun deaths in America — suicide.

In addition to gun measures directly related to firearm access, the 80-page Bipartisan Safer Communities Act draft includes investments in mental health.

Mental health advocates and researchers have long pushed back on the idea that more funding for mental health services alone can reduce homicides and mass shootings and worry that a focus on mental health will detract from efforts to improve gun control.

“If the intent is to reduce gun violence, broadly defined, I don’t think that lots of money funneled into mental health services is going to do that,” said Kelly Green, senior research investigator at the Penn Center for Suicide Prevention. “Mass shootings are not a mental health issue; they are a gun issue.”

At the same time, the legislation could be impactful in addressing suicide simply by making it harder for people in crisis to legally obtain a gun.

» READ MORE: Do mental health provisions belong in the Senate’s bipartisan gun safety deal?

The most common form of gun deaths

The relationship between gun violence and mental health is complicated, according to experts. Advocacy groups worry that linking the two issues may stigmatize people with mental illness. Data show that they are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence.

Suicide is the most common cause of firearm death in the United States. And in Pennsylvania, suicides have outpaced homicides for decades. There were 1,686 suicides compared with 988 homicides in 2020 in Pennsylvania. Between 2017 and 2019, about 50% of suicides in Pennsylvania were by firearm compared with 75% of homicides — and still in that period there were 1,200 more firearm suicides than homicides.

There are demographic differences between the victims of suicide and homicide. According to the CDC, the firearm suicide rate for Black Americans is half that of white Americans, while the firearm homicide rate is 13 times higher. But experts in recent years have been expressing concern over an increase in suicidal thoughts and behavior among people of color — including Black teens and indigenous people.

In 2020, 166 people in Philadelphia died by suicide — 91 of the victims were white and 58 were Black, an increase of 10 deaths compared with 2019.

More mental health resources needed

Green said that community mental health services in the United States are in dire need of more resources. She doesn’t see a direct link between most of the mental health funding in the bill and suicide prevention.

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act would give states $750 million to create extreme risk protection order laws, also known as “red-flag laws.” These laws create a process for courts to take away someone’s firearm if they are a danger to themselves or others — at times due to a mental health crisis. The grants will also be available for other “crisis interventions,” such as drug and mental health courts.

Pennsylvania does not have a red-flag law. Earlier this month, the state Senate voted not to advance an extreme risk protection bill in a party line vote.

» READ MORE: A new mental health emergency number launches in July. Some hope 988 is a catalyst for bigger change

Other mental health investments in the legislation include:

Gun control a more effective tool for addressing suicide

More funding to help people access mental health care could reduce suicides, said Catherine Barber, a senior researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Research Center.

“Being in mental health treatment, compared with being mentally disturbed and not in mental health treatment, is protective against suicides,” she said.

But it is hard to estimate the impact of the bill, which she calls a “hodgepodge” of funding opportunities.

Most of the funding in the bill is not specific to suicide or specific forms of treatment.

Funding of community behavioral health clinics could increase access to suicide prevention programming for youth. Advocates of a 988 suicide hotline number also argued that better funding would improve crisis response.

Green, from the Penn Center for Suicide Prevention, says that it is the gun provisions that give her the most hope for suicide prevention — especially the incentives for states to enact extreme risk protection order laws and a provision that prolong waiting periods for buyers under 21.

Studies show both red-flag laws and prolonged wait periods to purchase are associated with reductions in suicide.

“We’re going to direct funding for mental health, but that’s not specific to suicide,” Green said. “So while it could have impact, I’d expect the more focused regulations around access to guns to have a bigger impact.”

How to find help
If you or anyone you know is thinking of suicide, help is available 24/7: