I recently found out a very good friend committed suicide with a handgun. I had no idea he was suffering that badly, and neither did any of his immediate friends around him, including those on his volleyball league who saw him nearly every day. This man was not a loser. He had a Master’s and Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from top schools, was a licensed electrician, had a home that was paid for in San Diego, and a mid-six-figure salary. He had an active social life and was not what society would consider an ugly man. By any outward measure, he was a poor candidate for self-harm.
There are three games human beings play when something bad happens to someone we know. I call them “ain’t it awful”, “that wouldn’t happen to me”, and “what if.” Ain’t it awful is the first game. We talk about just how awful something really was to people we know because we just can’t believe how awful it really was. We then accept that which has happened as awful but try to rationalize why something that awful could not possibly happen to us. I won’t get cancer because I don’t smoke. I’m a much better driver than he was. I don’t fly in bad weather, etc… The most dangerous of the games, however, is the “what if” game.
The “what if” game involves knowing that X and Y produced outcome Z, but convincing ourselves if we could have replaced X and Y with A and B, the outcome would now be C (which we like) instead of Z which is horrible. Often the “what if” game is wishful thinking at best, and the driver of horrible decisions at worst. As an example, if a person is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, they might be tempted to think “if I had not smoked and been a vegetarian this would not have happened.” While smoking certainly did not contribute to their health, they very well could have been a health nut and had the same outcome. We don’t like to think those thoughts as human beings because it means we are helpless in some respects to control our destiny, which is enough to scare the hell out of anyone.
I played the “what if“ game with my friend’s suicide, and it caused me to examine my beliefs in gun rights now having been a person affected by a death caused by a gun. What if he could not have gotten a gun? He had planned this out so thoroughly it must have taken weeks, he was an engineer, and he would have used another means. If he had tried unsuccessfully to hang himself or overdose with pills but instead ended up in a vegetative state would that have been a better outcome? No.
What if he had to wait to buy the gun, would he have changed his mind? He had owned the gun for twenty years (I was with him when he bought it), and even if he didn’t this was not a spur of the moment act, he would have waited a week, or a month for that matter.
What if assault weapons were banned? He did not shoot himself with a rifle, his pistol was more than adequate to kill him.
What if his gun had reduced magazine capacity? It did, he lived in California, and it only took a single shot to kill him. In fact, he was such a considerate man his Glock did not have a magazine in it when they found it next to his body off a mountain trail. He killed himself firing only a single bullet through his heart, so nobody stumbling upon him could hurt themselves or use his firearm to hurt someone else.
What if he had a supportive spouse? My wife pointed out to me that even married people commit suicide, sometimes to the utter surprise and horror of their spouse.
What if I called him more frequently? It was only six weeks between losing his job and him killing himself. I cannot call all my friends every six weeks to give them a wellness check.
My friend was laid off from his job as a principal engineer with Raytheon six weeks before he killed himself. He became a 50-year-old single man without a job, a high risk for suicide. I don’t believe this was the only reason he killed himself, but I do believe it was the pivotal factor that took him over the edge. I do think if employment law gave workers, especially older workers, more protections he might still be alive. But that is not going to change.
Companies want to be able to replace older people with younger people on demand, and the courts and our politicians support that. They will say it’s just business in a competitive world, but it is killing more middle-aged people than ever before.
I also think that if obtaining psychiatric help did not carry significant social stigmas and risks, he may have sought professional help. He had a security clearance, and he probably had some fears that seeking help might jeopardize his clearance and his job. My friend also owned a few firearms, not many, but he may have been scared if he sought help his firearms might have been confiscated and not returned.
These mental health policies have done more harm than good, as evidenced when copilot Andreas Lubitz who did not seek treatment for mental health problems locked his pilot out of the cockpit of an Airbus and crashed a plane full of people into a mountain.
What is hardest to accept is when I ask myself what I could have done to prevent his death. The answer is most probably not a goddam thing. If he had died of cancer or a car accident, or by any other means it is not like I would have been consulted in the matter. So why would I be given any choice about this? The reality is he died of a horrible illness. An illness that might have been curable if he sought help – but he didn’t, and it killed him. I hope he found some peace.
Howard County, Maryland resident Brian Bissett is the author of two peer-reviewed books on Data Analysis.