Donna’s Law: A new suicide prevention tool

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Katrina Brees credits her love of art to her whimsical, talented mother. For more than a decade, the two worked side-by-side producing parades in New Orleans. Her fond memories of her mom include “just her dancing in a parade, just her feeling the music, feeling the audience, giving love.”

But the person who seemed so carefree was a tormented soul, in a constant battle with bipolar disorder. In 2018 she wrote a letter to her psychiatrist: “Dear Doctor, It has been nine months since this episode began. I am not doing well. How long must I endure this?”

Her mother answered her own question just a few days later. On June 26, 2018, she bought a gun and fatally shot herself. She did it beneath the Tree of Life, a New Orleans landmark. “It was the most special spot she could choose,” said Brees. “It’s where many of our friends have had weddings. We’ve had funerals there. The space is so sacred. It feels to me like she laid herself on the cathedral of our community and died there.”


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But more devastating than where she did it was how she did it: “She didn’t like guns,” said Brees. “She was scared of guns. There were no guns in our family. It was so unlike her.”

When asked why she chose a gun, Brees replied, “When you look at tools for the job, that’s the best tool for the job. And that’s what the information online will tell you.”

Professor Mike Anestis, who heads up the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at the Rutgers School of Public Health, said that many people survive suicide attempts using other methods. “Intentional overdose? Only 2% to 3% of the folks who attempt suicide using an overdose die,” said Anestis. “Almost 95% of folks who use a firearm do. They don’t get a second chance.”

Which is why any conversation about saving lives has to start with guns. According to Anestis, guns are the main cause of suicide deaths: “More than half of all suicide deaths in any given year are caused by self-inflicted gunshot wounds. So, that’s somewhere in the vicinity of 25,000 firearm suicide deaths in the U.S. every single year.”

Even more staggering: The majority of all firearm fatalities in the U.S. are suicides. “Suicide accounts for anywhere from 60% to 65% of all the gun deaths in the United States in any given year,” he said.


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According to University of Alabama law professor Fred Vars, “In 2020, there were 66 gun suicides every day, which is more people than died in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. And we don’t see it. You know, it doesn’t make the news. It happens one person at a time. Unless it’s a celebrity, we just don’t hear about it.”

But Vars is trying to change that, raising awareness while pushing for new gun legislation. He says there is “absolutely” a correlation between stricter gun laws and fewer suicides. He’s working with Katrina Brees on legislation called Donna’s Law, named after her mother. It would allow potential gun buyers to put themselves on a “do not sell” list.

“An individual would have the opportunity to suspend their ability to buy a gun, voluntarily, confidentially put their name into the already-existing background check system,” said Vars. “And if they attempted to buy a gun, that transaction would be denied.”

Spencer asked, “Do you have confidence that people who are suicidal would voluntarily request not to be sold a gun?”

He replied, “During a suicidal crisis or depressive episode, I think it is unlikely that anybody would sign up. But there are a lot of people who’ve been in that dark place who come out the other side and know they’re a danger to themselves. It’s more like an advance directive. Here, while I’m feeling better, let me prepare myself for that, and just get the gun out of the equation.

Gun Store in America Glock pistols are shown for sale at a range in Maryland in this 2015 file photo. Maryland is considering adopting Donna’s Law, which would allow people to voluntarily place their names on a “do not sell” list for gun purchases.  

Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

He said the law would be especially helpful to people who, like Katrina’s mother, have bipolar disorder, roughly 15% of whom die by suicide. But it would help others, too: “Anybody for any reason could put their name on the list,” said Vars. “You could have an anger problem, you could have an addiction, you could have recently lost a job. There are other reasons people attempt suicide that don’t involve mental illness.”

So far, Donna’s Law has gone nowhere in Congress, but three states (Washington, Utah and Virginia) have passed it, and Maryland recently held hearings. Mental health advocate Bryan Barks testified in favor of the law, saying, “This bill would give people prone to suicidality the agency to make decisions about their own access to guns when they are not actively suicidal.”

Barks, who struggles with bipolar disorder, said she learned firsthand a few years ago why this legislation needs to pass: “I remember it being a beautiful season. It was spring in D.C. The flowers were blooming, the sun was out. And I was deeply suicidal. And I had been thinking, ‘What would happen if I bought a gun?’ I knew every reason why someone who struggles with suicidality should never own a gun. But that day I didn’t care. And I found myself actually googling, Where can I buy a gun? I imagined how that gun would feel in my hands, cold and heavy. And I knew that it could easily end my life.”

She doesn’t remember exactly what stopped her. But she ended up hospitalized under psychiatric care.

“That moment really haunts me,” Barks said, “because I know that a lot of people in the United States have googled that exact same thing, and not had the same outcome that I did.”

journal.jpg From Bryan Barks’ journal.

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Barks, whose journals chronicle years of struggle, said she will put herself on a “do not sell” list immediately if her home state of Maryland adopts Donna’s Law. “I don’t want the version of myself who doesn’t see the value of my own life to be able to buy a gun in those moments,” she said. “I want the version of myself who is thinking clearly to be able to preempt that crisis and say, ‘No, she doesn’t need to have a gun when she’s at her most suicidal.'”

Vars said, “I think this is an easy way to save lives. Nobody is having their gun rights taken away. Certainly no one’s having their gun taken away. We’re just allowing people to exercise in advance and protect their decision not to have access to a gun, because they know they’re not safe with one.”

And Katrina Brees said stopping even one suicide would make her uphill fight for Donna’s Law well worth it. “It’s such a horrific, debilitating thing to have happen,” she said. “And I can’t imagine any other way to process it, other than to change it.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, get help from the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988. 

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Story produced by Amiel Weisfogel. Editor: Carol Ross. 

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