Crime, Featured, Politics

Firearms and Suicide Part of Life in the Last Frontier

Alaska leads the nation in both suicide and firearm fatality rates
by Brian Wright for Seward City News-

Just before two a.m. on the morning of Sunday October 1st, a routine traffic stop in Seward took a turn for the worst. An officer of the Seward Police Department, identified in reports as Matthew Armstrong, contacted a suspect, Micah McComas, in the Safeway parking lot. Although the exact events that followed remain unclear, the encounter quickly escalated, leaving Officer Armstrong injured and McComas on the pavement with multiple gunshot wounds. McComas later died from his injuries.

In 2016, 963 people were fatally shot by members of law enforcement in the United States. This number averages out to 2.63 every day. While this violence is largely concentrated in several hotspots—particularly urban areas such as Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and others—this volume of violent encounters between law enforcement and civilians has ignited a passionate debate in our nation.

On one side are the members and supporters of law enforcement agencies extolling the virtuous and selfless men and women who undertake the hazardous job of enforcing our laws with its abundant risks. One-hundred and forty-six law enforcement officers were killed nationwide in the line of duty during 2016, after all. On the other side are those who identify themselves as voices for the disenfranchised, the demographics they claim are targeted disproportionately by this unique brand of violence.

Though the striking numbers unveil a terrible consistency of officer-involved fatalities across the country, for a no stoplight town like Seward with a population of a mere 2,600, waking up to a scene of tragedy at the town’s lone supermarket was a frightening divergence from the normally sleepy routine.

Roughly 18 hours after this incident, violence on a much larger scale swept the national headlines when apparent “lone-wolf” gunman Stephen Paddock opened fire on a country music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, killing 58 and injuring hundreds more. Gun violence, shootings, and mental healthcare were once again thrust into the forefront of the national debate.

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For Alaskans, these difficult issues are nothing new; Alaska is a state that has grappled with violence for decades. According to the Center for Disease control, Alaska had the nation’s highest rate of fatal incidents involving firearms in 2015 with an average of 23.4 deaths per 100,000 citizens. Massachusetts, the state with the lowest incidence of firearm fatalities, experienced only 3.0 per 100,000. Alaska’s shocking rate was more than double the national average of 11.1.

Gun violence, of course, is not solely an Alaskan or even American issue. A broad spectrum of firearm violence is reported around the world. English-speaking countries Australia and the United Kingdom both reported a much-lower ratio of less than one death per 100,000 citizens. On the other end, Honduras, with the highest ratio of firearm deaths in the world, experienced a staggering 67.2 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. It is clear that guns and gun violence are an ongoing global debate.

Here in Alaska, the high frequency of firearm fatalities is skewed by the fact that the vast majority, almost 80%, were from intentional self-inflicted injuries. Alaska’s percentage of suicides is also the highest in the nation. Statistics reported by the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council reveal that Alaska averages around 136 suicide deaths per year, or around 10 per month. These tragedies occur most frequently among men (who account for 78% of suicide deaths). Alaska Natives are also at particular risk. Alaska Native males between 15 and 24 years of age, in fact, show the highest rate of suicide for any demographic in the country, with 141.6 reported suicides per 100,000.

There are many factors that have steered Alaska along this tragic trajectory. Some theories identify long, dark winters and extreme isolation as potential aggravators. Lack of access to mental health resources, particularly in rural areas, as well as economic depression also show clear correlations with violence and suicide. Alcoholism and drug use are also rampant in our state. Alaska has the second-highest rate of alcohol attributed deaths and above-average use of and dependence on illicit drugs. These many influences, it seems, form a tangled web that have led to a recurring theme of tragedy in the Last Frontier.

For now, communities such as Seward are left to grapple with incidents such as Sunday morning’s officer-involved shooting with what tools we possess. These events evoke social issues beyond mere gun violence. Across town, conversations can be overheard ruminating on everything from law enforcement officer/suspect protocol, community safety, criminal rehabilitation and more. Violence on both a local and national scale have a way of stirring up tough emotions in the communities they effect.

Alaska is a place of where life exists on the fringe. It is a state of intense beauty and profound isolation. Paradigms that have spawned solutions in other parts of the country may not apply here. In the name of progress, a diverse body of citizens must circumnavigate their disagreements to uncover the best path forward.

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