But experts say the urge to commit suicide is neither unstoppable nor permanent. "I emphasize that suicide is preventable — treatment works," said Iliana Gilman, spokeswoman for a crisis hotline in Austin.
The impulse to commit suicide has been described as a trance, and the speed and lethality of a gun make it harder to interrupt that trance. Attempts at suicide are more than 20 times as likely to be fatal when a gun is used.
"They are blinded," said Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. "They are so focused and tunnel-visioned on 'I have to end the pain I'm in; I have to end it now.' They are impelled to act to end that pain. They can't problem-solve. A firearm is an immediate end to the problem."
Some experts say mass shootings such as the one in which 20 first-graders and six staff members were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December can often be seen as extravagant suicides rather than homicidal rampages. And the young man behind that massacre committed suicide before he could be apprehended. Preventing those killings, experts say, requires better treatment of mental health problems and limiting access to weapons.
"If I had to choose one thing," said Joe, the Michigan professor, "I would try to reduce access and availability of firearms. The means matter more."