In a world where terrible things happen every day, can we write a law to stop all of them? Should we even try.
Take, for example, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s new bill, AB 755, that would require any California bridges built or rebuilt with state or federal money to plan for suicide barriers to deter jumpers.
This isn’t a new cause for Ammiano. He served on the Golden Gate Bridge District board as a San Francisco supervisor and has been pushing for suicide barriers, with little success, for more than a decade.
In 2010, the last year with full statistics available, 3,913 people committed suicide in California. Last year, 33 people jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. The victims are often troubled, depressed or suffering from other mental health problems. Their deaths break up families, shatter friends and relatives and leave a hole in the lives of many people.
But do we need a law?
In the Bay Area, a similar battle has been carried on for years over what to do with the Golden Gate Bridge, where more than 1,600 people have jumped to their death since it opened in 1937.
On one side were those who argued that a safety net would keep people from jumping and save the few who would still attempt it. On the other side, people said that those who wanted to commit suicide would simply find another way or place to do it.
In 2010, the bridge district played its own version of Solomon, agreeing that a safety net should be erected, but refusing to pay the $50 million cost of putting it up.
Ammiano is similarly divided in his bill, which would require bridge builders to consider a suicide prevention plan, but not actually require them to do anything about the problem.
It’s not as though legislators and the voters who elect them have any qualms about telling Californians what’s best for them. Libertarians will go on for hours about how the nanny state forces them to wear helmets when they ride their motorcycles, buckle up in their cars and put their children in car seats almost until puberty.
And you don’t even want to talk to the raw milk crowd.
But when it comes to suicide, where do you stop? Even if every bridge has a safety net, there are plenty of tall and not-so-tall buildings out there for someone determined to end his life.
And jumping is just the seventh most common way of committing suicide, behind guns, drugs, hanging, poisoning, carbon monoxide and suffocation. Should there be bills limiting access to ropes and enclosed garages?
Maybe the $50 million for the Golden Gate Bridge safety net and the millions more for the studies at other bridges that would fall under Ammiano’s bill would be better spent on mental health programs designed to deal with the problems that make people think suicide is their only solution.
There’s no answer, really. Plenty of people will argue that if a law requiring safety nets saves even one life, it’s worth every nickel that’s spent. Others would say that suicide has always been an unfortunate fact of life and that it’s impossible to legislate human behavior.
Just because something’s hard to do doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, though, and governments have always tried to tell people what they should do, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
But as legislators contemplate Ammiano’s bill – and the more than 2,100 other bills introduced this year – it would be worth their while to remember Gov. Jerry Brown’s words from his 2011 veto of a bill that would have fined kids for not wearing a helmet while skiing or snowboarding:
“Not every human problem deserves a law.”
John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.