VIOLENT REALITY: Firearms groups, shops join push to stop suicides

Firearms groups, shops join push to stop suicides


The gun safe keys were in the bottom of a bucket, which was filled with solid ice. The time it took to melt the ice, unlock the safe and load the gun gave the woman enough time to rethink suicide.

She had called her friend Tyler West, a suicide prevention advocate, and told him she was contemplating suicide, so he took steps to make it harder for her to get to her guns.

Just a few minutes go by for most people between deciding they want to die and taking action on that thought. About half of the time, they use guns, statistics from suicide prevention groups show.

Guns are the most lethal of methods used in attempted suicides — about 85 percent of people who shoot themselves die.


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“If we can get them through that critical — basically 20-minute — window, they have an 80 percent chance of living,” said West, who is on the policy council with the nonprofit American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The foundation partnered with the National Shooting Sports Foundation in 2016 to develop an educational program to help gun retailers recognize warning signs for when someone might be in a mental health crisis.

“We need to partner with that community and work with them rather than work against them,” West said.

The idea sprang from the U.S. Surgeon General’s 2012 plan to reduce suicide rates, and methods of suicides have been studied by experts in the Means Matter Campaign at Harvard University, which in turn has helped state-level advocates establish partnerships with communities of gun owners.

The goal is to enable gun sellers to have conversations and watch for warning signs before making sales, he said. It’s not to file official reports or make medical diagnoses, said West, who also serves on the foundation board.

“If the person is just saying ‘Listen, I just want a gun, it doesn’t matter,’” said Cathy Barber, who researches the methods of suicide at Harvard University. “If you say, ‘What kind of experience do you have with guns,’ and if they’re not coming up with anything, you might say, ‘Get some training first and then come back.’”

Means Matter, a project under the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, takes a two-pronged approach to suicide prevention, said Barber, the project’s director.

The first is training for medical professionals. It’s similar to training that the suicide prevention foundation pushes for gun sellers — just having a conversation with someone who might appear to be mentally stressed.

Clinicians see people at their lowest, and many people who kill themselves go to see doctors in the weeks leading up to the suicides, Barber said. If doctors get a sense that someone might be in crisis, they should recommend locking up that person’s guns, she said.

“There are times when you want to store your guns differently when you’re struggling with your personal demons,” Barber said.

The other piece of the approach is training, not just for sellers but also for gun owners, that encourages storing guns safely and keeping an eye out for friends in crisis.

Means Matter sends out tip sheets to gun sellers once a year, and helps state and local groups disseminate information about suicide prevention.

So far, suicide prevention groups in 21 states have programs in partnership with gun shop organizations, Barber said.

In New Hampshire, the first state to tackle the project, about half of the state’s independently owned gun shops display New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition materials about suicide. The group has produced pamphlets and tip sheets for gun sellers about spotting signs that someone may be suicidal.

The suicide prevention efforts began with a focus on youths, but in 2009, three people with no relationship to one another bought weapons at one gun shop over six days and all killed themselves. This prompted the group to work more closely with gun shops, said Elaine Frank, co-chairman of the coalition.

The owner of the shop became one of the leaders in the push to educate gun sellers, Frank said.

“Whether you think guns are good or if you think guns are bad, what’s clear is that a suicidal person with a gun is not a good thing,” Frank said.

She’s now worked with suicide prevention advocates from at least eight states, Utah among them, to launch similar programs.

When Utah began its efforts about four years ago, the goal was to make suicide prevention a basic part of firearms safety. Kim Meyers, the suicide prevention coordinator for the state, said although the response has been good, she doesn’t expect to see changes in statistics for a few years.

It’s an ongoing partnership with gun shop and gun range owners. The Utah concealed-carry course has a suicide prevention module, and the state gives out small grants to communities to build suicide prevention programs at gun shops, Meyers said.

“It’s just a part of what they do because this is a gun safety issue,” she said.

The Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition, the state’s coalition of suicide prevention advocates, public health officials and gun sellers, also made a public service video depicting a man at a gun range. He stops shooting, unloads his handgun and turns to face the camera.

“Last year, I was at my lowest, going through some pretty serious depression,” he says, pulling off his protective ear muffs. “A couple friends of mine stopped by the house and said they were worried about me. Said they would feel a lot better if they could hold onto my firearms until things turned around. I think they saved my life.”

He turns back to the range, slides a magazine into the gun’s chamber and starts shooting again.

Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 273-8255 or the Arkansas Crisis Hotline at (888) 274-7472.

Information for this article was contributed by John Moritz of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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