Donna’s Law: A New Suicide Prevention Tool

Katrina Brees credits her love of art to her quirky, talented mother. For more than a decade, the two worked side by side, producing Parades in New Orleans. Her fond memories of her mother 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 tortured 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’m not doing well. How long do I have to endure this?”

Her mother answered her own question just days later. On June 26, 2018, she bought a gun and fatally shot herself. She did it under the Tree of Life, a New Orleans landmark. “It was the special place that she could choose,” said Brees. “Many of our friends got married here. We’ve had funerals there. The place is so sacred. To me it feels like she laid herself on top of our parish cathedral and died there.”

farewell letter.jpg

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

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

Professor Mike Anestis, director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at the Rutgers School of Public Health, said many people survive suicide attempts using other methods. “Deliberate overdose? Only 2 to 3% of people who attempt suicide by overdosing die,” said Anestis. “Nearly 95% of people who use a firearm do so. You don’t get a second chance.”

That’s why any conversation about saving lives has to start with guns. According to Anestis, guns are the leading cause of suicide deaths: “More than half of all suicide deaths in any given year are caused by self-inflicted gunshot wounds a year.”

Even more amazing: the majority of all Firearm deaths in the US are suicides. “Suicide accounts for between 60 and 65 percent of all gun deaths in the United States each 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 shootings in U.S. history. And we don’t see it. You know, it doesn’t make the news. It happens one person after another. 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 link between stricter gun laws and fewer suicides. He works with Katrina Brees on a law 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 option to suspend their ability to purchase a gun by voluntarily entering their name confidentially into the background check system that is already in place,” Vars said. “And if they tried to buy a gun, that transaction would be declined.”

Spencer asked, “Do you have confidence that people who commit suicide would voluntarily demand not to have a gun sold to them?”

He replied: “During a suicidal crisis or a depressive episode, I find it unlikely that anyone would sign up. But there are many people who have been in that dark place who come out on the other side and know they are in danger to themselves. It’s more of a living will. Here, while I’m feeling better, let me prepare and just take the gun out of the equation.

Gun Shop in America
Glock pistols are for sale at a stand in Maryland in this 2015 file photo. Maryland is considering passing Donna’s law, which would allow people to voluntarily put her name on a “do not sell” list for gun purchases.

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

So far, Donna’s bill has gone nowhere in Congress, but three states (Washington, Utah, and Virginia) have passed it, and Maryland has recently held hearings. Mental health advocate Bryan Barks testified in favor of the law, saying, “This law would give people who are prone to suicidality the ability 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 why this legislation needs to be passed a few years ago: “I remember it was a beautiful time of year. It was spring in DC. The flowers bloomed, the sun was shining. And I was deeply suicidal. And I thought, ‘What would happen if I bought a gun?’ I knew every reason why someone struggling with suicidality should never own a gun. But that day I didn’t care. And I actually found myself googling, Where can I buy a weapon? I imagined how this weapon would feel in my hands, cold and heavy. And I knew it could easily end my life.”

She doesn’t remember exactly what stopped her. But she ended up in the psychiatric hospital.

“This moment really haunts me,” Barks said, “because I know a lot of people in the United States googled the exact same thing and didn’t get the same result as I did.”

From the journal of Bryan Barks.

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

Vars said: “I think this is an easy way to save lives. No one will be deprived of gun rights. Certainly no one will be deprived of their gun. We only allow people to practice in advance and protect their decision not Having access to a gun because you know you’re not safe with it.”

And Katrina Brees said that fighting for Donna’s Law uphill would make it worth stopping even one suicide. “It’s such a terrible, debilitating thing that happened,” she said. “And I can’t think of any other way to process it 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. Publisher: Carol Ross.

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