Two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides.
Paul Schlemmer / Stocksy
Ralph Demicco, the then-owner of New Hampshire’s largest gun store, Riley’s Sport Shop, received a phone call one day in spring 2009. The caller informed him that three people had bought guns from his shop and fatally shot themselves. All the cases were unrelated. And all happened in the span of six days.
Today, especially following the school shooting in Parkland, there is possibly no more heated political debate in America than the one on guns, with any compromise between gun advocates and gun reform proponents seeming hopeless. But with the focus on homicides, it’s rarely mentioned that two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides. There’s a distinct correlation between states with high gun ownership and those with high suicide rates. And it’s over this suicide issue that public health experts and gun rights advocates have formed unlikely alliances across the country, confronting the crisis in their local communities in diverse ways.
Groups in several states with proud “gun cultures” are reaching out directly to gun shop owners to teach them how to identify suicidal customers and refuse to sell them firearms if necessary, and to supply them with suicide prevention materials for display. Other states are focusing on educating people on keeping guns safely stored, or providing free gun locks to people in their communities in the hopes that suicidal gun owners will resist the urge to harm themselves. But some states have resisted these programs. Gun enthusiasts there remain skeptical about the motives of these projects, saying that they’re a roundabout way of taking their guns away.
While the minority is resisting, “the values [most] gun owners might hold dear around protecting the family, that dovetails well with the central message of firearm suicide awareness,” says Cathy Barber, director of the Means Matter suicide prevention campaign at Harvard School of Public Health.
Barber’s research has been central in laying the groundwork for projects around the country. Her key finding was that gun owners and non-gun-owners had roughly the same rates of suicidality, but that gun owners were more likely to die. Guns are by far the most lethal means of completing suicide, with 85 to 90 percent of attempts resulting in death. So, with Means Matter, she shifts the focus from questioning why people take their lives, to how. And that “how” translated to guns.
After the triple suicide with guns from Demicco’s store, Barber worked with him to see how he and his peers could be effective first lines of defense. Along with Elaine Frank from Dartmouth College, who’d called Demicco to report the incident, they created and mailed out educational posters to all the gun shops in New Hampshire. Three months later, Frank and Demicco visited the stores and found that 48 percent had displayed their literature. “Based on one mailing, that’s phenomenal,” Frank tells me. “Especially for something as emotionally charged as suicide.” They’d proven that the country’s first “Gun Shop Project” had legs.
Studies show that when people decide to take their lives, it can often be an impulsive decision. This doesn’t mean that they haven’t considered suicide previously, but the urge to act can surface suddenly following the arrival of bad news, like receiving divorce papers or losing a job. Michael Anestis, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi, who wrote a book entitled Guns and Suicide: An American Epidemic, uses the analogy of a packed lunch. “If I pack a sandwich and I put in my calendar, ‘I’m going to eat lunch at 11,’ I still didn’t decide to eat that sandwich until I put it in my mouth, chewed it, and swallowed it,” Anestis says. “We don’t make any final decisions to do anything until right before we do those things.”
When that decision is suicide, the result is going to be more swiftly fatal compared to other means if there’s a gun accessible. Thomas Brown, a firearms instructor in New Hampshire who’s involved in the Gun Shop Project, says, “There’s a big difference between: ‘I’m gonna take a handful of pills a half hour before my family comes home’ and ‘I’m gonna put a firearm in my mouth or against the side of my head and pull the trigger.’”
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So, the idea is to restrict access to guns during turbulent moments, as well as to encourage shop owners to display materials. The Gun Shop Project educates shop owners on how to recognize potentially suicidal buyers via a checklist. Signs may include fidgeting, acting nervous, and not making eye contact. and Brown says some of the verbal requests are also telltale indicators: They won’t want a cleaning kit or more than one box of ammunition, because they know they won’t be using them.
If they spot these warning signs, store owners are encouraged to refuse sales. They won’t want to run that risk anyway, Brown says. “It’s self-preservation and common sense from a business point of view, but I think there’s a humanitarian aspect to it, too,” he adds. “There’s not a big markup on a handgun. Fifty, seventy-five dollars? It’s not worth someone’s life.”
The idea is not to expect gun shop owners to suddenly transform into qualified mental health professionals, but simply to use human instinct to sense that something’s not right. Frank compares it to stopping a flustered individual on the street and asking if everything is okay. “If you’re open to that,” she says, “you might change the trajectory of what’s going on for that person.”
About 12 states have cloned the New Hampshire model, and tweaked it to more accurately speak to their own audiences. Other states have moved in different directions, taking the onus away from gun shop owners.
Jen Stuber’s approach in Washington State takes the emphasis away from guns and onto keeping homes safe. Stuber’s husband walked into a gun shop and bought a firearm one day in 2011. Within two hours, he’d taken his life. She agreed that while he’d suffered from anxiety and depression, his action was ultimately impulsive. “His background check came in early. So, the act was impulsive in the sense that I think he didn’t want to lose his nerve,” she says. “If there had been a way to put a barrier there in that moment, the next day he might have felt better. Something may have happened that changed his perspective on things.”
Stuber, now the co-chair of Safer Homes, Suicide Aware—a public health campaign that focuses on keeping home environments safe in firearm-owning communities—took action, but believes the key was to bring gun advocates into the mental health conversation. And the way to do that was by framing the conversation correctly, with language that includes, rather than vilifies, the pro-gun side.
“I might not agree—in fact, I don’t agree—with many of the beliefs of people who are on the task force,” Stuber says. “I’ve chosen to say, there are some differences here, but where is it that we can move forward together?”
The approach has paid off so far. The NRA and the Second Amendment Foundation have backed Washington’s Safer Homes, Suicide Aware program. The aim is to educate gun owners about safe storage: locking up guns, storing them safely, and even temporarily passing them to friends if necessary. Washington’s laws allow for this “temporary transfer,” permitting recipients to legally keep firearms without background checks.
The Safer Homes volunteers attend gun shows to provide customers with free, sturdy pistol safes and advice about home safety. Stuber says they’re “flanked” at these shows, and that they’re regularly invited to events ranging from fishing derbies to veterans’ fairs. For Stuber, this all proves the promise in the program’s goals, including the acceptability by the pro-gun side.
In Utah, where 86 percent of gun deaths are suicides, groups have taken yet another distinct approach: a firearm safety module. Kim Myers, the coordinator at the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition, struck up another unlikely alliance—with the Utah Shooting Sports Foundation. Together, they developed a five-minute PSA video about guns and suicide to play at mandatory training sessions for concealed carry permits.
The basis of the idea is similar to the other states’, but with the catchy and memorable motto: Lock, Limit, Remove. Lock guns, limit access, and temporarily remove them from the home when necessary. The analogy is simple. It’s like keeping a drunk friend’s car keys until they’re sober and ready to drive.
Myers agrees that the key to the efficacy is to take political views out of the equation, and to find common ground. She added that it’s important to work on local, grassroots levels, using trusted messengers with “cultural competence” to spread the word to gun owners. “If you take the relationship out of it, the messaging gets messy,” she says.
Myers wants to introduce a Gun Shop Project in Utah, but patience is necessary in such a conservative, gun-centric state where gun culture is ingrained in many people’s minds. When Mormons fled persecution in Missouri and headed to Utah, the governor of Missouri actually put a kill order on them in 1838. “So, the idea of having to arm yourself against the government rings strong with people,” she says.
Wyoming has a similarly proud gun culture, stemming from the pioneer history. Ryan Allen, owner of Frontier Arms & Supplies in Cheyenne, says that guns have always been a tool for ranchers to protect livestock, and for people to protect themselves against animals. “When you’re out hiking or camping, it’s generally a good idea to have a firearm to protect against varmints, big cats, bears.”
There’s been a gun lock project in place in Wyoming since October 2016, with free locks available at 20 locations around the state. These are simple cable padlocks, where the cord is threaded through the barrel or “ejection port,” depending on the gun type, and then out of the magazine well. But the historic gun attachment means people are skeptical to go further. Some believe gun shop projects are backdoor ways to curb gun ownership.
And mental health discussion is also stigmatized there, says Rhianna Brand, a suicide survivor who now runs an organization that educates about suicide prevention throughout her state. She says this stigma in Wyoming is largely due to the “cowboy-up” mentality, to “pull yourself up by the bootstraps,” and to “get on the horse and ride again.” Anestis has encountered similar suspicion while carrying out his research, saying that some gun owners won’t even look at the data connecting firearms to suicide. “There’s a belief that there’s some hidden agenda, that this is a ‘gun grab,’” he says referring, again, to the government’s plan to seize their guns. “They claim the CDC made those numbers up.”
But one of the partnerships that’s formed suggests there’s hope for these projects to scale to a national level. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention teamed up with the National Shooting Sports Foundation a year and a half ago, to help achieve the AFSP’s goal of reducing suicides by 20 percent by 2025. They piloted an educational program in four states—Kentucky, Alabama, Missouri and New Mexico—sending out brochures and posters.
Doreen Marshall, the vice president of programs at the AFSP, says the positive response during the pilot meant that the NSSF has now mailed the brochures nationwide. They’ve been able to reach such a broad audience because they are two big organizations working together with the scope to go national. The effectiveness of all these projects is tough to measure though, with so many factors involved.
Most of the outcomes are merely anecdotal. Demicco says the satisfaction of statistics may never come, but that doesn’t faze him. “The satisfaction we’re gonna get is that we’ve already saved lives, and there will be people spared the agony in the future.” Results aside, the alliances that have evolved between the two sides of the fiery debate on guns are remarkable. “I never would have dreamed that the two groups would’ve come together,” Demicco says. “Throughout the whole thing, we have neither been pro- or anti-firearm. We’ve been anti-suicide.”
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