I was at work that spring morning in April 2012 when a Baltimore County, MD police officer called me to say there had been an “acc—er, incident” involving my 25-year-old son Peter.
The officer asked, “Why would he do this?”
“Do what?” I replied.
Of course, his reasons are now unknowable and no doubt complex. My son had graduated from college with honors a few years earlier, held a good-paying job, and had many friends and family who loved him. The summer before, he and his girlfriend had bought a home together. Around the same time, he purchased a .40 caliber handgun for target shooting and “protection.”
He gave no warning of what he was about to do that fateful morning. He wrote her and me notes of love and apology, without any explanation. He loaded his weapon into his backpack and walked a few blocks into a wooded park behind a shopping center.
Then he called 911 to say where they would find his body, his driver’s license with the red heart for organ donation, and, he emphasized, his gun. Once he saw the flashing lights of the police vehicles up on the hill, he fired a bullet into his head.
I’ve learned there is no making sense of the suicide of a bright, apparently healthy young man, but also that his access to a firearm in the home increased his risk of suicide three to five times. Study after study shows that guns are the least survivable means, used in 20,000 suicides each year in the US -- just over half of all suicides. And white males, like Peter, make up the overwhelming majority of gun suicides.
But there’s hope for those still with us. Researchers have also found dramatically lower suicide rates where guns were not present or were kept unloaded and locked apart from ammunition, especially around impulsive youth. Any obstacle or delay can break the self-destructive impulse, because many suicidal individuals are distraught and ambivalent, acting in the heat of the moment.
Peter was likely depressed, but that condition could have been addressed. Ninety percent of those thwarted in a suicide attempt do not find another way to die; they find a way to live. But sadly, only 15% survive a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
I can’t change the facts that my son kept a gun handy and that in a moment of despair, he methodically used it in a way that left him no second chance to reconsider his options. I can’t change his choices. What I can do as a grieving Mom is share my story in the hope of helping to save another life.
Dorothy Paugh is a retired naval officer and mother of three who has lost her father and a son to suicide by firearm.