Faces of Courage: Dorothy Paugh

Peter Paugh

Almost fifty years ago — on what I thought was going to be a fun-filled, relaxing summer day — my father took his life by putting a gun to his head, leaving my mother to raise five children between five and 15 years of age. I was just eight years old and, on that day, the world immediately became less safe to me. While he fought in Burma in World War II, my father didn’t own a gun—that is, until he bought one for the purpose of ending his life. Years later, I joined the Navy and qualified as a marksman on an M16 machine gun. I know how to shoot—I’m not anti-gun, nor am I afraid of guns.

But guns again impacted my life in a profound way when, three years ago, my 25-year-old son Peter followed his grandfather’s heartbreaking example and ended his life with a gun in a moment of despair. As was the case with my father’s suicide, the use of a gun gave my son little chance for survival. By all appearances, he was living a happy life, with a good job and a fiancée he intended to marry. We were unaware that he was troubled, or that he was on the verge of suicide.

The NRA dismisses the topic of suicide as tangential to the gun safety debate, but it is in fact—central, accounting for over 20,000 of the 32,000 gun deaths in the U.S. each year. The victims of suicide may not be “innocent” in the same way as homicide victims, but they are our loved ones whose lives mattered. They got lost in pain and darkness and did not want or know how to ask for help. They deserve our attention and compassion too.

I believe the mere presence of a gun influences vulnerable individuals in their moment of despair by making suicide too easy, quick and certain. Half of all suicides in this country are committed with firearms, and 85% of suicide attempts with a gun are fatal. What’s more, Americans are more likely to commit suicide if they live in an area with a higher prevalence of household gun ownership.

Four out of five Americans who die by suicide are male. Adolescents and young adults are especially at risk, given impulsivity and the often-easy access to firearms that may be poorly secured in their homes. It may be impossible to eliminate every instance of suicide, but we all share a responsibility to keep our families and our communities safe and to save as many lives as possible.

Human beings are fragile and fallible—we know many of us will experience moments of intense pain and profound despair. We also know it saves lives to make the means to end one’s life harder to find. The urge to end one’s life is often temporary, so any obstacle or delay (waiting periods, trigger locks, higher bridge rails, packaging pills in smaller quantities) can save lives. Research shows most suicidal individuals who survive an attempt do not just “find another way” to die, they find a way to live.

I’ve had 50 years to think about the topic of gun suicide, and I’m no longer stunned nor shamed into silence. The way I see it, there’s evil in the world, and there’s good. Even if I only add one pebble to the side of good—to the side of saving lives—then that’s what I will strive to do. I want to bring both attention and compassion to this complex and frightening issue.

I have learned through this experience that when you stand up to take a position on curbing gun suicide, you open yourself up to criticism. But after suffering such profound losses, I’m impervious—no one can hurt me anymore. I hope I am able to strike a chord of compassion with others. Keeping others from learning these terrible lessons the hard way is really what compels me, and so many others, to continue this important work.

If you or anyone you know has been personally affected by gun violence and would like to share your story with Moms Demand Action, please email [email protected].