SPOKANE, Wash. — Shanna Torp has never been uneasy around guns. Her father, a retired trucker, kept a gun in the cab when he was on the road. When Torp, a debt collector from Post Falls, Idaho, goes camping, she takes a rifle to ward off cougars and bears.
But after her mother died following heart surgery, her 80-year-old father became despondent, Torp told suicide-prevention workers at a gun show in Spokane last autumn. There had been several suicides in Post Falls, she said. She added pointedly: “And he’s got quite a few guns.”
Torp has reason to worry. Gun violence kills about 40,000 Americans each year, but while public attention has focused on mass shootings, murders and accidental gun deaths, these account for little more than one-third of the nation’s firearms fatalities. The majority of gun deaths are suicides — and just over half of suicides involve guns.
According to national health statistics, 24,432 Americans used guns to kill themselves in 2018, up from 19,392 in 2010.
People who kill themselves in this way are usually those with ready access to firearms: gun owners and their family members. Gun owners are not more suicidal than people who don’t own guns, but attempts with guns are more likely to be fatal.
Now, nearly a year after the coronavirus pandemic began, unleashing a tide of economic dislocation and despair, experts are bracing for a rise in suicides. Gun sales have risen steadily since March, and as shutdowns aimed at containing the virus have disrupted lives and led to social isolation, studies have shown an increase in anxiety and suicidal ideation.
“So many people are struggling right now,” said Jennifer Stuber, an associate professor of social work who helped found the University of Washington’s Forefront Suicide Prevention center. “The indicators are that a perfect storm is about to hit.”
She noted that people who purchase guns to protect themselves from civil unrest and a possible rise in crime “may actually be incurring more potential risk in terms of harm that can come to their family.”
The concern about suicides has led to an unusual alliance between suicide-prevention advocates and gun-rights proponents; together they are devising new strategies to prevent suicide in a population committed to the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms.
Gun shows across the country had started giving suicide-prevention booths space at their events before the coronavirus appeared. Now, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for the firearms industry, carries a suicide-prevention video on the homepage of its website, and invites suicide experts to give talks at online events.
Firearms retailers hand out postcards that carry suicide-prevention hotline numbers and list the telltale signs of depression, including changes in sleep habits, sudden weight loss and alcohol abuse. Posters urge customers to “Have a brave conversation” with a friend if they’re worried. The messages urge gun enthusiasts to keep their firearms locked, to store guns and bullets separately — and to offer to store firearms for a fellow gun owner who is going through a life crisis.
Retailers and gun-range operators are learning to ask questions of the new customer who doesn’t seem to know much about, or to be interested in, the gun he wants to buy. (Most suicides, especially gun suicides, are carried out by men.) Many gun shops have stopped providing loaner firearms to new customers to try out, as people have used these to kill themselves at ranges.
Jacquelyn Clark, owner of Bristlecone Shooting outside Denver, has changed her loaner policies, but said she still worried that customers could develop depression or dementia and do something rash. “That’s what keeps me up at night,” she said.
Many gun owners are unaware that gun suicides outnumber all other gun deaths.
Clark Aposhian, chair of a lobbying group for gun owners in Utah, where suicides outnumber homicides by a factor of eight, said he did not believe the numbers when he first heard them: “How did we not know?” Aposhian blamed the media for hiding the truth and fostering an impression that most gun deaths are murders.
Some suicide-prevention experts wonder if there isn’t a contradiction in working with groups like the National Rifle Association, National Shooting Sports Foundation and Second Amendment Foundation. These groups do not support many measures that public health officials have called for, including universal background checks, mandatory waiting periods and so-called red flag laws.
But Kyleanne Hunter, the former vice president of programs for Brady (formerly the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence), noted that several gun-control groups count gun owners among their volunteers.
“We’re not going to crack this nut if we isolate gun owners from the conversation,” said Hunter, a Marine Corps veteran.
‘Enough time to maybe change your mind’
Brett Bass also served in the Marines, where he became a rifle sharpshooter and pistol expert. A certified marksmanship instructor, he owns six handguns and four rifles.
But Bass, who is 37, has also known several men, including a fellow Marine with whom he served in Afghanistan, who killed themselves, and he has stored guns for close friends when they were severely depressed.
Bass works full time for Safer Homes, Suicide Aware, a state-funded suicide-prevention program in Washington state led by the Forefront Suicide Prevention center. Since the pandemic started, the organization has rolled back in-person outreach at events like the Wes Knodel Gun & Knife Show at the fairgrounds in Spokane, where Bass had a table in the corner late last year. He was surrounded by displays of firearms: antique bayonets and rifles laid out on zebra skin, historical pistols that look like props from old Westerns, and rows and rows of boxed ammunition.
At Bass’ booth, a poster implored visitors: “Stop by and have a conversation that may save a life.” The incentives were free merchandise: lockboxes for medication, high-end safes for handguns and expensive gun locks that could disable a shotgun or rifle. (All of the gear was donated by Boeing.)
To anyone who would listen, Bass explained that suicide was an impulsive act. Locking up a firearm could put the brakes on the impulse.
“It stops you for 10 minutes, and that gives you enough time to maybe change your mind,” he said.
He and Sabrina Votava, a local volunteer, hit the key messages quickly: Be alert to signs that a friend may be depressed. Ask the person if they are contemplating suicide.
If they say they are troubled, offer to take possession of their guns until the crisis passes. It’s not true that someone contemplating suicide will simply choose another method.
“People think, ‘There nothing I can do about it. If someone wants to commit suicide, I can’t stop them,’” said Votava, who lost two brothers to suicide. “But there’s a part of us that is wired for life, and if the attempt is aborted, the natural wiring kicks in.”
Public health experts liken the approach to taking the keys away from a friend who might otherwise drive home drunk.
“If you’re on a diet, do you want to have ice cream in your freezer?” Stuber said. “Clinicians will tell you, what’s most important is to remove the firearm from the individual. That person is in terrible pain, and they fixate on getting out of that pain. We’ve got to disrupt that.”
Stuber became interested in working with gun sellers after experiencing a devastating personal loss in 2011, when her 40-year-old husband, who was in the throes of a mental health crisis, killed himself with a gun he had just purchased. The couple, who had two young children, ages 1 and 5, had never owned any guns.
“He passed the legal background check, and a couple of hours after he picked up the firearm, he ended his life,” Stuber said. “I realized the person who sold him the gun was one of the last people to see my late husband alive.”
Babysitting the neighbor’s gun
Most gun suicides are carried out by people who are longtime gun owners; less than 10% are carried out by someone who recently purchased the gun.
In either case, Stuber says, firearm retailers are important allies in suicide-prevention efforts. A study she co-authored found that once gun retailers learned about the risks to their community, they were more willing to get involved and integrate information about suicide prevention into firearm safety training.
Aposhian, of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, is a prime example. When his own research confirmed what a local legislator, Steve Eliason, had told him — that 85% of gun deaths in Utah were suicides — he had “an epiphany of sorts,” he said.
“That was our family, our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers,” Aposhian said. “Utah has very permissive gun laws, but we also have a very low homicide rate. What we didn’t realize was we have a huge suicide rate.”
Since then he has played a leading role in state efforts to curb suicide. These include adding a suicide-prevention module to the training that is required for a permit to carry a concealed gun, a permit that is recognized by dozens of states outside Utah.
Whenever a friend or acquaintance is going through a difficult time, Aposhian said, “I ask that awkward question, ‘Are you thinking of harming yourself?’ The second question is, ‘Hey, why don’t I babysit your guns for a week?’”
Aposhian said he had stored guns for friends on numerous occasions, most recently for a family that owned many firearms. “There was a traumatic experience in the family, and they are big-time gun owners,” he said. He changed the combination on their electronic gun safe, and stashed other guns the family owned in his own safe.
“Friends don’t let friends in crisis have access to lethal means of harm,” Aposhian said. “It’s not a great bumper sticker, but it’s easy for people to accept.”
Some of the earliest efforts to engage gun retailers in suicide prevention started in New Hampshire in 2009, when state officials who were reviewing suicide reports noticed that within one week, three people had visited the same firearms store in Hooksett, New Hampshire, purchased a gun and killed themselves.
“I was aghast,” said Ralph Demicco, who owned the store at the time. “We always prided ourselves as being a socially responsible gun store.”
Years earlier, when Demicco was just an employee at the store, he had reluctantly sold a gun to a woman who radiated unhappiness. But the store owner’s wife knew her and vouched for her. “Would you believe,” Demicco said, “the next morning, that same lady, to whom I sold a gun, took her 7-year-old daughter, drove to a remote location, and killed her daughter and herself.”
In the years that followed, Demicco said, he took action that he believed prevented suicides on dozens of occasions. In one case, he said, a well-dressed woman came in, walked straight to the counter, pointed to a handgun and said she wanted to buy it, without ever making eye contact with him.
“I said to her, ‘Should you be buying a gun?’” Demicco recalled. The woman started crying, he said, and confided that she had just been discharged from the hospital. He encouraged her to go home, and called her doctor on her behalf.
‘How are you going to save lives?’
The discussions that brought public health experts and gun owners together in New Hampshire gave rise to the Gun Shop Project, a coalition of public health and mental health practitioners, firearm retailers and gun rights advocates, under the aegis of the New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition.
The project created suicide-prevention posters and flyers to distribute in gun stores that could be reproduced for free, on one condition, Demicco said: “You stick to the spirit and intent of our materials, which is not anti-gun but anti-suicide.”
The poster reads, “Concerned about a family member or friend? Hold on to their guns.” It lists warning signs that a person might be suicidal, such as depression, anger, reckless behavior, a recent breakup or other setback, substance abuse and talk of “being better off dead.”
At least 21 states now have similar suicide-prevention partnerships with gun owners, including New Mexico, Utah and Nevada, where suicide rates are among the highest in the nation. (The three highest are in Montana, Alaska and Wyoming, in that order.)
Whether such educational efforts will be successful in reducing gun suicides is still an open question. The National Action Alliance to Prevent Suicide has estimated that 3,600 to 3,900 gun suicides a year could be prevented if even a small proportion of gun-owning families locked up their guns, and the risk of a suicide in a household with a gun was lowered to that in a gun-free home.
In Washington state, Stuber’s research has found that the brief suicide awareness interventions at community events led gun owners to be more diligent about locking up their firearms. In New Hampshire, the percentage of suicides occurring after recent gun purchases has declined slightly in recent years, although researchers say the drop cannot be clearly attributed to Gun Shop Project initiatives.
Research on legal restrictions on firearms is more plentiful. A new handgun law in Connecticut that requires a permit before a firearm purchase has been associated with a 15% reduction of gun suicides in that state, while the repeal of permit-to-purchase laws in Missouri has been associated with a similar increase in firearm suicides, a study found. State laws prohibiting the sale of firearms to youth were associated with a modest decrease in suicides among those ages 14 to 20, one study found. A study of handgun laws in all 50 states indicated laws restricting the purchase of handguns could have an even bigger impact on lowering suicide rates.
“When people say, ‘Why are you working with gun shops? They sell a terrible product’ — I get it,” said Catherine Barber, a senior researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Research Center and one of the founders of the Gun Shop Project. “But how are you going to save lives?”
And barriers remain, including the deeply ingrained message that gun owners have internalized, that they need quick access to firearms to protect themselves.
Torp, concerned about her father, picked up a pill lockbox for his insulin from the Safer Homes booth, as well as a handgun safe and a locking device for his Winchester Defender.
But, she said, she can’t keep all of the guns in the house locked up.
“If someone comes barreling through your door, you need a loaded gun,” she said. “You can’t be trying to open up a safe when you’re panicking.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.