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At the University of Texas, a Suicide Mistaken for a School Shooting

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On Tuesday, Colton Tooley -- a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin -- came on to our campus with an AK-47 and took his own life on the top floor of the library.

This horrific incident has been misclassified by the media as a school shooting. The perpetrator and victim, a single individual, apparently worked to avoid inflicting physical harm on fellow students. At one point, he even apologized to a student he inadvertently jostled as he made his way up the stairs in Perry-Castaneda Library. Colton reserved the violence for himself.

The University of Texas bore witness not to a shooting, but to an extremely public and immensely painful suicide.

Yet the most stunning aspect of the discourse over Tuesday's tragedy is the lack of any meaningful discussion of suicide. Yet National Suicide Prevention Awareness Week is only a few days past, and UT chose to observe Suicide Prevention Week last week.

We fixate on school shootings because they are rare -- but we fail to give similar attention to suicide because it is so incredibly common on college campuses.

Suicide is a much greater threat to persons of college age than homicide. UT, for example, has seen only two homicides perpetrated over the last thirty years. Contrast that statistic to the six suicides over the last twelve months. Tellingly, even the two murders -- which were perpetrated by a single individual -- ended in suicide. Typically, UT experiences only three or four per year.

Yet the bulk of the discussion centered on whether or not we should arm students to protect against school shootings. This is a complete non-sequitur given the nature of Tuesday's tragedy. "Quick! Shoot him! Before he kills himself!" Is this really our best plan?

In a strange coincidence -- strangely ironic, perhaps -- a talk was scheduled for UT campus the same day on this very topic. The speaker was John Lott, the author of "More Guns, Less Crime."

I suggest modifying Lott's title: "More Guns, More Suicides." Fully half of all firearms deaths in the U.S. are suicides, and 80 to 90 percent of suicide attempts with firearms are successful. Compare this to drug overdose, which is only successful 30 to 40 percent of the time.

Campus gun bans are believed to play some role. Firearms are responsible for far more suicides among college-age non-students than among college-age students -- a fact which is partially attributed to the lack of handguns on college campuses (some of which is admittedly cultural rather than legal). Indeed, social scientists use suicide rates as a proxy for household handgun ownership rates, because the correlation is so very strong.

Instead of pushing for barely trained students to carry guns, let's talk about how we can keep firearms out of the hands of those who are struggling. Let's talk about getting them access to counseling.

I submit that arming oneself is about restoring a feeling of control in an uncontrollable world. We felt out of control on Tuesday, and it was painful. We want that control back. But is arming oneself truly going to give us control, or just the illusion of control?

We can at least admit that more guns could not have saved Colton Tooley's life that day. So let's have an honest conversation about suicide.

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