Guns, Suicide, And Starting To Change The Argument

So, fellow Jackals,

I’ve got a piece up today in the Boston Globe on what firearm-suicides tell us about who is most at risk from a gun in the home.  The answer leaps out of the numbers — 2/3 gun deaths in the US are self-inflicted, and another notable fraction are murders within or close to the gun household.

What caught my eye amidst those numbers is the attempt by public health figures to frame the discussion of guns in gun-friendly states around safety rather than control.   So I wrote about it.

Trigger warning: an unhappy painting and more on a tough subject below the fold.

ETA: switched out the art to be slightly less on-the-nose.

Leaving aside for a moment 2A fundamentalism, the core claim in much of the gun debate is that guns offer protection.  The numbers — and tons of real life experience around the world — say the opposite.  Guns work. They’re effective. They do what they’re designed to do.  Bringing such functional tools into the reality of human experience, where despair may take any of us, if just for a moment, is a lethal mixture. Not protection, but deadly risk.  Hence my conclusion:

In America in 2018, easy access to guns empowers those who hate enough to slaughter innocents. Many elected leaders have tuned out that argument, insisting instead on the benefits of still more guns. But the story of suicide in America directly confronts the myth that guns protect their owners and those whom they love. The old line about the phone call coming from within the house is doubly true here: A gun bought to ward off the dangers of the world outside brings those dangers right into the home.

I know and you know and we all know that the bare facts of what guns bring into a household won’t transform gun culture or American law anytime soon.  But my argument and my hope is that increasing emphasis on the reality of who suffers most from easy access to a gun will, over time, shift the assumptions we carry into the battle to get guns out of the American public square.  A comparable circumstance came up in the reporting of the piece:

At a recent lunch with a number of suicide-prevention scholars, one noted that it wasn’t that long ago that drinking and driving was regarded as a minor sin.

Now, after years of work led by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and others, driving after drinks is broadly unacceptable. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen — obviously it does — but as a society we’ve agreed that it shouldn’t. With the evolution of legal penalties and behavioral norms, drunk-driving deaths have fallen by about half in the last 40 years.

I know and I agree: four decades is too damn long to live under the barrel of others’ guns.  I’m not sure it will take that long, if we get a chance (vote on/by Tuesday!).  But we aren’t getting anywhere fast as it stands, so at worst, this framework might offer a way to peel a few more out of the reflexive “guns-good” crowd…and we need each and every one we can get.

Go read it, if you have the stomach for yet another depressing topic. I’d value anyone’s response.

Image: Edvard Munch, Despair1894.


70 replies
  1. 1

    Thanks for switching out the painting.

  2. 2
    Ben V says:

    What was the first painting? (Don’t post it, just curious and can look it up myself.)

  3. 3
    Enhanced Voting Techniques says:

    So basically there is this untold story of mass suicide among the Ammo-Sexuals and Auto-Select Curious and we only hear about it when these dorks decided to take a few of the rest of us with them. Lovely.

  4. 4
    r€nato says:

    read the Vanity Fair piece about the MFOL (Parkland High) kids, October issue. Gives you a hell of a lot of hope. They did what nobody thought could be done anywhere, let alone in Florida. And they’re not letting up. They are spreading the movement across the country.

  5. 5
    zhena gogolia says:

    Excellent piece. (I’m wondering what the painting was, now!)

    You must know this guy — Matthew Miller at Harvard — I heard a talk by him on a similar topic, and it was really powerful.

  6. 6
    zhena gogolia says:


    Yes, that’s a great article too.

  7. 7
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Ben V: @zhena gogolia: This one.
    19th century genre painting that’s too close to home.

  8. 8
    wvng says:

    It is not clear to me that there was ever a lobby willing to go to any lengths, and a large pool of people willing to support the proposition that drunk driving was not only just fine but the essence of patriotism enshrined in the Constitution. This is a much heavier lift.

  9. 9
    Mr. Prosser says:

    @Ben V: Review the works of Edouard Manet

  10. 10
    Tom Levenson says:

    @wvng: Yes. But, to expand on what I didn’t have space in the piece to say, the point is that the 2A is the tail of this dog; it means what people say it means at any given point. (Yes — I know the Supremes right now are gun-nut heavy–but even the black robe gang feels the pressure of social change). The dog itself is the way American popular culture and civil discourse feel the gun. Cars were zones of liberty; they are much less so now. Guns are indeed a harder problem, but I believe that the argument can follow a similar arc and reach, in time, a better place than we’re in now.

  11. 11
    Uncle Cosmo says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Just for curiosity, what was the original painting?

    OT: First Glob article I’ve accessed this month – & I am informed I now have 1 free article left. Like I’d want to read anything from them if it wasn’t written by a jackal. Fuck that rag.

  12. 12
    zhena gogolia says:

    @Uncle Cosmo:

    See #7. It’s Manet.

  13. 13
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Uncle Cosmo: See comment 7 above. It was a picture by French genre painter Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps.

  14. 14
    trollhattan says:

    Great piece.

    Did the Pentagon not determine that personnel stationed off base overseas in countries where gun ownership is limited have a notably lower suicide rate? Active and retired military have troubling suicide rates and it would seem politically palatable to make this an issue to tackle.

  15. 15
    Tom Levenson says:

    @zhena gogolia: @Mr. Prosser: Not Manet. Decamps.

  16. 16
    Tom Levenson says:

    @trollhattan: I think that’s right. (I’d have to check my notes.) Certainly the fact that vets are at significant risk is one of the elements that has prompted hard-core gun rights folks in Utah to collaborate with Harvard School of Public Health folks on harm mitigation.

  17. 17
    JPL says:

    @Tom Levenson: I thought it appropriate.

  18. 18
    Tom Levenson says:

    @JPL: It hit the topic. But that’s not an image that a lot of folks for whom this topic has personal resonance would want to see. I’d rather err on the side of courtesy to that feeling.

  19. 19
    debbie says:

    Maybe a better model would be increasing the awareness of CTE as a risk of contact sports. It seems to have been accepted more quickly than MADD and drunk driving (I’m not diminishing their efforts in any way).

  20. 20
    satby says:

    I’ve known this since I was a child because, as I’ve mentioned previously, my late father was a homicide cop in Chicago for the last 1/2 of his career. Dealing with grief stricken families after one ugly argument got out of hand, or one child found the hidden gun, or a depressed son or father had offed themselves, sometimes taking the rest of the family with them, was what cut his life short too, from the stress and sorrow. Two of my cousins on my mother’s side committed suicide by gun, both under age 30.

    There was some movement to restrict the most lethal guns when public health studies showed the clear trend that a gun in the house made the family less safe. But then in 1996 the Republicans passed the Dickey amendment to the 1996 budget, and research by the NIH and CDC stopped.

  21. 21
  22. 22
    Uncle Cosmo says:

    @Tom Levenson, @zhena gogolia: When I hit “post”, only Cheryl’s comment was showing. Take it up with my Guangdong lawyer, Su Mi. Also, vacate my front yard. /grouch

  23. 23
    Mnemosyne says:

    Part of the problem with this argument is that there is a segment of the population that does not believe that suicide can be prevented, and sometimes don’t think it should be prevented, because you’re infringing on someone’s personal freedom to decide to kill themselves. These are usually people who are very skeptical of psychology and/or psychiatry.

    Not surprisingly, there’s a big overlap between the above group and gun nuts.

  24. 24
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Uncle Cosmo: Spoken in the best tradition of jackalhood.

  25. 25
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Mnemosyne: I’m not sure the overlap is that strong. I’m sure it exists, but suicide cuts across orthodoxy pretty compellingly.

  26. 26

    @trollhattan: I seem to recall Adam S. saying that gun violence is rare on military bases because they keep the weapons locked up.
    I don’t know about off base though.

  27. 27
    Yutsano says:

    @Uncle Cosmo: No tone markers? I call Russian troll!!!

    @Tom Levenson: As I repeatedly tell Imani the more famous/successful she gets: just remember us little peeps Tom.

  28. 28
    japa21 says:

    Looking at his paintings, easy to see which it is. And yes, Tom, you did the right thing by changing it out.

  29. 29
    Raven says:

    I had a friend who was diagnosed with a virulent brain cancer. She went to a local gun shop to buy a pistol and the people there sensed things weren’t right so they got in touch with her family. She lived a couple of more years and the last was really awful. I also had two family members with terrible debilitating conditions and they died long terrible deaths. We locked up the guns that they had and they died naturally and horribly. In “The Shootist” Jimmy Stewart, the town doctor, tells cancer ridden John Wayne (who was really dying of cancer) “If i were a man like you I wouldn’t die a death like this”. You tell me.

  30. 30
    Brickley Paiste says:

    Solid article, Mr. Levenson.

    You’ve probably seen this, but some others may not have:

    It is, indeed, unfortunate that these suicides are not addressed as a public health issue* and that many people simply see the issue as an opportunity to beat their long dead hobby horse about either gunz is bad /or/ my freedumbs.

    The “gun control” debate in this country focuses waaaaaaay to much on emotional/irrational things like schools shootings/”assault rifles” etc. an just whistles past the fact that the vast majority of people who die from firearms will be just as dead even if there were strictly enforced bans on “assault rifles” and magazine capacity restrictions because almost all suicides involved only one shot.

    *This will not be a popular opinion, but part of the discussion needs to include how people making a considered decision to end their lives because of medical conditions or other situations can be assisted in having a means of painless/dignified suicide. But that is for another day.

  31. 31
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Tom Levenson:

    It depends on if said gun nuts lean libertarian or not. It’s pretty common for libertarians to think that one of their civil liberties is the right to kill themselves if they so choose.

    I’ve seen this voiced in my own family, which is why I bring it up.

  32. 32

    @Raven: I hear what you’re saying. However, there should be other alternatives in a “civilized society”.

  33. 33
    TenguPhule says:


    I had a friend who was diagnosed with a virulent brain cancer. She went to a local gun shop to buy a pistol and the people there sensed things weren’t right so they got in touch with her family. She lived a couple of more years and the last was really awful. I also had two family members with terrible debilitating conditions and they died long terrible deaths. We locked up the guns that they had and they died naturally and horribly.

    If there’s an Aesop here, its broken.

  34. 34
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Brickley Paiste:

    What a shock, the NRA apologist troll shows up to tell us all that gun control is useless because people will kill themselves no matter what, despite the fact that science shows otherwise. The longer you can delay an intended suicide, the more likely it is that intervention will come in time.

    But, hey, I only know one person IRL who shot himself in the head in a moment of despair and left his body for his mother to find, so what do I know?

  35. 35
    TenguPhule says:

    @John Revolta:

    I hear what you’re saying. However, there should be other alternatives in a “civilized society”.

    Physician Assisted Euthanasia is universally opposed by the same assholes who want to make women into second class baby factories.

  36. 36
    japa21 says:

    @Mnemosyne: In a way, I agree with them. But only to a degree, The problem with gun suicides is that once the trigger is pulled, there is no way to change the decision. I don’t have the figures, but a lot of the intentional overdose suicide attempts don’t come to fruition because the person committing suicide has a change of heart and calls for help.

    I should add that for many years I was a mental health therapist. I only had one client that followed through and succeeded in his attempt. He was a police officer and used his gun. I had three clients who did OD but called for help in time. Most of the time, I was able to recognize the suicidality and get them more complete help, either inpatient or with a psychiatrist.

  37. 37
    TenguPhule says:

    @Brickley Paiste:

    The “gun control” debate in this country focuses waaaaaaay to much on emotional/irrational things like schools shootings/”assault rifles” etc. an just whistles past the fact that the vast majority of people who die from firearms will be just as dead even if there were strictly enforced bans on “assault rifles” and magazine capacity restrictions because almost all suicides involved only one shot.

    Unless of course we required an annual mental health evaluation as part of ongoing licensed ownership.

    Want to own the gun? Submit to regular checks that you are still in the right state of mind not to do something bad with it.

    Won’t catch everyone, but it will make a dent in the numbers.

  38. 38
    chris says:

    Too many guns, too few restrictions. Given the system, generational change is the only hope.

  39. 39
    VeniceRiley says:

    And just tonight someone shot wounding 4 at Talahassee yoga studio then killed himself.

  40. 40
    Alternative Fax, a hip hop artist from Idaho says:

    I wish I could easily lay hands on the essay that raven’s friends’ daughter wrote about how means matter, and that she would likely not be alive to have written it if she’d had access to a firearm. My energy level this evening precludes a search from me, but I can assure you she is absolutely correct.

    Depression (of any polarity) can be fatal. It can be managed, if the right treatment professionals are involved, but it is sometimes fatal. As I’ve had to tell a couple of young psychiatrists in their residency “you can’t save them all, and it’s important for you that you feel no more guilt at a loss than an oncologist or a surgeon does.” Some people die from these diseases. More people who have a gun close by do than those who do not.

  41. 41
    Ruckus says:

    Forty years ago, as a suicide hot line/mental health counselor, the one thing we worried most about getting a suicide call was that the person had access to a gun. Almost every other method takes more effort and is often not fatal if caught in time. A gun is fatal the vast majority of the time. And 40 yrs ago, we had no way to track or trace that call in a timely manner so time was not on our side.
    50+ yrs ago I had a couple kids I went to HS with who lived a block away. They came home one day to find a grizzly scene, murder – suicide, their mom and dad. Have no idea why or which way but does it really matter?
    A gun at hand is asking to be used. Not everyone will ignore that call.

  42. 42
    Prometheus Shrugged says:

    I agree completely with the premise of the article. However, just a minor comment: I’m not sure I would draw any inference from the Sri Lankan statistics over the period 1970-1995. That interval coincides almost exactly with the heyday of JVP, and, listening to the stories of the people that lived through that era, it’s not clear to me that anyone would be able to tell what was suicide and what was homicide (even if the bookkeeping could be trusted). The Maoist faction of the JVP was apparently particularly ruthless.

  43. 43
    Mr Stagger Lee says:

    Many gun shops and ranges stopped the practice of renting guns at the rangers, because of suicides. In Washington State, there is an initiative that will tighten gun safety laws the NRA is balls out in trying to defeat it. If it is said once it needs to be said again, the Ammosexuals vote and always come out. I think the pro side thinks the Seattle voters will save the day.

  44. 44
    mapaghimagsik says:

    Wow, great article. I really liked the way you showed how its a mix of guns, isolation, and a moment contribute to the suicide rate. It made me go over to the esurance site to see how they discuss premiums, benefits and gun ownership. The wording is very…shall we say, delicate in explaining how gun ownership can be an expensive proposition in unpaid benefits, and no carrot in sight.

    Thank you for presenting something to dig at.

  45. 45

    @Tom Levenson:
    I agree that it’s vital to push back against the worldview that guns make you safer. It’s a view that’s emotionally satisfying but completely at odds with the facts. Suicide is a good angle to start with, but we need to push back at all the different forms of “guns make you safer” misinformation. Owning a gun makes you much more likely to be a murder victim, since guns can escalate an argument into a murder. They’re also nearly useless at preventing other people from committing gun crimes. Despite the rhetoric about good guys with guns stopping bad guys with guns, it’s vanishingly rare for a random person with a gun (as opposed to an on- or off-duty law enforcement officer) using it to stop a gun crime. If the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, we should work harder at keeping guns out of the hands of bad guys, not putting them into the hands of as many people as possible.

  46. 46
    Ruckus says:

    The answer is something a few states are now allowing and everyone should. Doctor assisted suicide.
    Your comment points out that some people have a good reason not to continue. My sister was operated on to find the source of her continuing cancer. The docs took one look, closed her up and offered her two options. Hospice and drugs, takes about 7-10 days, or massive chemo and give her another maybe 3-4 months and then hospice. She wisely took hospice, she’d been through rounds of chemo. Friends stood outside her hospital room and argued that she should fight. I reminded them that she had and that she lost. It was her life, it was her decision, no one else’s

  47. 47
    eemom says:


    I believe that terminally ill people should be able to choose death with dignity and minimal suffering, but I think there are far better ways than guns to accomplish that.

    eta: I see this has already been covered.

  48. 48
    Fair Economist says:

    I didn’t realize how much suicide had gone up in the past ten years. When I first looked at the statistics, suicides were about half of the gun deaths, and now they’ve climbed to 2/3. This is over just the past 10 years or so.

    Whenever gun ownership comes up, I say I don’t have a gun in the house, because guns in the house are for killing yourself, your friends, or your family and I don’t want to do that. There are a lot of gun nuts among my parents’ friends. They don’t like to discuss this with me.

  49. 49
    zhena gogolia says:

    @Tom Levenson:

    Oops, sorry, I only looked at the picture at your link and didn’t notice the artist.

  50. 50
    zhena gogolia says:



  51. 51
    Ruckus says:

    See my comment at #46
    I’m anti guns. For sure at least as we regulate them now. We live in a different world than 60 yrs or more ago. Some seem to think that requires even more guns but what has that gotten us? Nothing positive, that’s for sure. I’ve been paid the princely sum of almost nothing to carry one, with orders that if necessary, shoot. I have no real idea what I might have done if a situation arose but I’m very, very glad it never did. I know what millions of fellow vets did, they fired that weapon and lots of people died needlessly. Just to be fair and just for perspective, I served most of my time on a warship, big guns, missiles, etc. My job was to maintain the equipment that kept that ship pointed in the correct direction, IOW navigation/control equipment. I was an enabler of massive amounts of firepower, I’ve seen what it can do. And I’m more respectful of that massive amount of firepower than a gun in someone’s home.

  52. 52

    @Brickley Paiste:

    Solid article, Mr. Levenson.

    Your congratulations would be more convincing if the rest of your comment didn’t show you had failed to read and/or understand it. It discusses the issue of suicide being inevitable and presents very good evidence that it isn’t. There are many examples of countries making particular means of suicide more difficult, and it generally reduces the overall rate of suicide rather than simply driving people to choose other methods.

  53. 53
    Alternative Fax, a hip hop artist from Idaho says:

    @Roger Moore:

    Owning a gun makes you much more likely to be a murder victim, since guns can escalate an argument into a murder.

    Guns are tools of escalation. I have never been an a situation that my having a gun at hand would have improved, and that includes the time there was a gun held to my head.

    A gun in your house can also be taken out of your house, so you can create a gun injury by having a firearm that is unsecured. Things my father taught me about firearms:
    – They are always loaded
    – They are likely to be taken from and used against you if you try to use them in defense (unless you are both extensively trained and highly skilled, as well as calm in a crisis)
    – They are among the most sought after items in burglaries and thus susceptible to being used by at best a thief
    – A firearm in your house increases the chance that someone will shoot you with it, be that a visitor (invited or otherwise) or a resident
    -There is no good reason to keep a firearm in your house, other than in a locked gun safe

    He was a skilled sport shooter and tore up his lifetime membership card to the NRA a couple of years before Poppy Bush did, because it had ceased to be a sportsman’s organization.

  54. 54

    @Alternative Fax, a hip hop artist from Idaho:

    There is no good reason to keep a firearm in your house, other than in a locked gun safe

    One thing I would like to do with gun laws is to write them so they discourage people from storing their guns at home, e.g. safe harbor provisions for guns that are stored in a licensed facility like a shooting range. Yes, it wouldn’t do much to stop people who are determined to go on a shooting spree or are stupid enough to keep their guns unsecured at home, but it would give people who do store their guns away from home a chance to cool down before doing something rash with them.

  55. 55
    Ruckus says:

    @Tom Levenson:
    I believe, with nothing other than my own ideas that a vet can be more at risk, simply because he/she is probably more likely to have gun experience, be at ease with it. After all they probably carried one, a loaded one. And they may have used it. That was a big reason for a lot of the guys than I was in hospital with and I’ve been in groups at the VA and a lot of the people in those groups were combat vets. Those experiences never go away and often they are not all that far under the surface. I have no combat experience and yet 40+ yrs later I can relate many days in great detail. As can pretty much every vet I know. The combat guys remember the killing, the guns, the being shot at, the shooting back. A gun was the answer to a lot of their problems for their entire combat tour. That answer is there for the rest of their lives, even if they never need it.

  56. 56
    Miss Bianca says:

    @Ruckus: One reason I like CO so much is that we do have legal assisted suicide. I know when my time comes due (cancer runs in my family, and yeeargh what a way to go), I want the option to have a hemlock party and then check out.

  57. 57
    Ruckus says:

    @Alternative Fax, a hip hop artist from Idaho:
    I’ve been shot at 4 times in my life. One of them was intentional. Someone was trying to kill me. It was dark and they missed. Not by much, this was the last time coming really close to being shot and I’d learned how that sounds when a round goes by you. The sound is unique. If I’d had a gun and not run, I’d have been dead before I got it unholstered. Fastest man in the world that night.

  58. 58
    Ruckus says:

    @Miss Bianca:
    It isn’t always fatal. I have cancer. Yes it’s in remission but that threat never goes away 100%. My sister died of cancer. My mom had the same cancer and kicked it’s ass. Lived about 45 yrs after, till 94. My aunt lived the second half of her life with cancer, she made 78. Today the odds are pretty good that if your cancer is discovered early enough, you can reach remission. It may not be pretty, but it is livable. I’ve certainly been through worse than cancer treatment, including having a lot of stuff removed from my skin with liquid nitrogen. Which is less fun than it sounds. Getting old isn’t for sissies.

  59. 59
    Mary G says:

    I have had a lot of luck with this approach. My dentist is a great dentist, and a nice man, but he is a political idiot with bad habits in radio listening. I was in for a procedure right before the big March for Our Lives protest, and he was all up in arms about it. He’d even written a letter to the editor spouting NRA propaganda. In between not being able to talk, I explained that I don’t want to ban all guns, but the public deserves to be safe, and unregulated guns are not safe. By the time I left, he had come around quite a bit.

  60. 60
    Hob says:

    @Mnemosyne: Oh, Brickley isn’t just about NRA apologism. He also (as I found out recently when I happened to read comments without my pie filter on) thinks it would be fine if “the entire Arabian peninsula was turned to glass.” A tough guy for all seasons.

  61. 61
    raven says:

    @TenguPhule: Fuck you asshole.

  62. 62
    joel hanes says:


    My father did the same when his cancer metastasized into his bones, in many places.
    Excruciating pain. He did one round of radiation to give himself a window
    of time to tidy up his affairs and make arrangements, and then declined
    further treatment other than palliative and hospice.

    He saved himself and us another year of increasing agony,
    and avoided spending maybe a quarter million dollars on treatments
    that would have been increasingly invasive and ultimately futile.

    His friend the judge told us at the funeral:
    “Joe was always an example of how to live;
    now he’s shown us how to die.”

    He had guns; he would never have used one,
    because someone else would have had to deal with the aftermath,
    and he wouldn’t do that to anyone.

  63. 63
    Dan B says:

    @r€nato: Amazing piece in Vanity Fair about March for Our Lives! It’s got a great and powerful story about making societal change. It’s of great value to hear about how to male it happen and be reminded of things already learned – to feel validated. Thanks for your link!

  64. 64
    raven says:

    @joel hanes: He made the right choice for him and you.

  65. 65
    MomSense says:

    Thanks for this, Tom. I deal with these issues in my daily work and it can be maddening. Half of the homicides in Maine are domestic violence related. There are so many guns here that escalation can become fatal very quickly. We’ve also had many threats at work from disgruntled patients (mostly from the withdrawal clinic) who have access to firearms.

    I have never been a gun owner but some recent incidents have caused me to consider carrying. The problem is the risk that comes from having a gun in the house.

    I think I’m so immersed in it that I’ve lost perspective.

  66. 66
    Ben V says:

    @Tom Levenson: Fitting. Thanks.

  67. 67
    LosGatosCA says:

    Good analogy.

    Drunk driving, and I would add smoking.

    Drunk driving changed the laws and the LEO approach to enforcement.

    Smoking was just information based social pressure to stop.

    When posters dominate with ‘no drugs, no smoking, no guns’ we will be winning.

  68. 68
    Brickley Paiste says:

    @Roger Moore: no that’s absolutely correct and I have been saying that for years

    There are many things we can do to reduce suicides and that is why we should address the issue rationally

  69. 69
    sempronia says:

    @Mnemosyne: I used to think this too and said so in some psychiatry class. The professor pointed out that the vast majority of suicides occur in the depths of depression, so if you think of suicide as the lethal outcome of a disease, it loses the “free will” part that attracts so much judgement and becomes as tragic and sympathetic as a death from cancer, for example. I have used this explanation many times since then.

  70. 70
    J R in WV says:


    Not too surprisingly, Facebook can’t find Stacey’s rally info…. I am shocked!

    This is my shocked face:
    : -0

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