The too-often forgotten side of gun violence

Mass shootings grab headlines, as 19,000 deaths – like my brother’s – pass quietly.

Country singer Mindy McCready, 37, fatally shot herself last month. About two people kill themselves with a gun every hour in this country.

The phone call came at 5 a.m. My sister, Deana – 1,500 miles away in San Antonio – wasted no words.

“Ted died last night.”

Theodore Edward Siniff, the second of eight children, was gone. I knew that he’d been battling debilitating back pain, alcoholism, drug abuse and depression for years. This familiar cocktail steals lives every day in this country.

“What happened?” I asked, barely able to breathe.

“He killed himself.”

As I would later say in my older brother’s eulogy in late 2011, not every death is a tragedy. My grandparents both lived well into their 90s, after all, before leaving this world. But when a person walks a winding, painful and utterly predictable path that ends with a gun to the head and a shattered family, the “whys” are matched only by the tears.

The family, friends and mere acquaintances of singer McCready will spend days and years examining every exchange, every word uttered, every unanswered cry for help that led up to that Sunday, when the 37-year-old with the silky voice and country twang killed herself with a single gunshot. Her boyfriend, record producer David Wilson, had done the same just a month earlier, a twin tragedy unfolding slowly but predictably on a public stage. Her two young children will grow up amid this wreckage.

My brother’s death at 53 was equally undignified, but thankfully out of the public eye. He was one of the 19,000 suicides by gun each year that you never hear about.

Even many of my longtime colleagues who know me like family will only learn how I lost my brother as they read this column. I’ve kept it from them. There’s still a stigma associated with suicide. Society, it seems, feels most comfortable looking the other way.

Yet nearly two-thirds of the gun deaths in the United States each year are suicides. Sad and tragic endings that show up in local obituaries, in Facebook feeds and in the faces of stricken survivors – but rarely do they make the news.

Except like last month, when we’re witness to a fallen star.

About two people kill themselves with a gun every hour in this country, but the gun debate too often focuses on the unlikeliest of all shootings: the mass killing of strangers.

Indeed, with every gun-related massacre that visits this country swiftly and incomprehensibly, we pause – if briefly – to examine a society thick with weapons but thin with answers. The enormity of shootings such as the rampage at a movie theater in Aurora and then an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., stops us cold and forces a collective soul-searching. As it should. Innocents falling in a crowded theater and children cowering in classrooms should haunt us.

But as the nation talks about gun control, reforming our mental-health system and saving lives along the way, suicide in America – and yes, suicide by guns – shouldn’t be an afterthought. It should be a pillar of anything done in the name of saving lives.

My brother’s death will sound hauntingly familiar to many people reading this. He seemed battered and down-trodden when my fiancée (now wife) and I saw him a month before he shot himself. Forcing a smile, he recounted his latest surgery to repair a never-ending and painful leg problem. I ache, still, as I recall his sad eyes. I couldn’t have known but feel I should have. I know my mother and other siblings perform this same useless exercise, the what-ifs coming one after another.

I didn’t know until arriving for the funeral how the few frenetic days before his death had unfolded: treatment at a facility, seeking refuge at another sibling’s house, desperate attempts by other family members to get him help. And then his release from the treatment center ... because they simply couldn’t hold him anymore. The gunshot would follow just hours later.

I don’t know what gun law or what changes in our mental-health system might have saved my brother. Perhaps not a one. But I do know that as we tally the victims of gun violence and consider how our nation should proceed, we must account for the 19,000 people like Ted who turned the gun on themselves.

We can’t keep looking the other way.

John Siniff, the youngest of eight children, is the Cover Story editor at USA TODAY.

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