Almost eight of every 10 suicides in Washington involves a firearm, and now a unique coalition of gun retailers, gun-rights activists and social workers have come together to try to do something about it.
SPOKANE — The young man was alone when he walked into Robin Ball’s gun shop.
Ball, the owner of Sharp Shooting Indoor Range and Gunshop, recognized him because he often came in to shoot with his uncle. He rented a gun to take out on the range. It was a normal transaction.
Ball said she believes he waited until the range was quiet. Then he turned the gun on himself and took his own life.
“It rocks your world. You kind of look at that and say, ‘What could we do to stop it?’ ” she said.
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As student activists from Parkland, Florida, have put a national spotlight on school shootings and gun violence, an unlikely coalition of public-health workers and members of the gun industry have been working together in Washington to stop a far more common, far less talked about cause of deaths involving firearms: suicide.
According to an analysis of state death records by The Spokesman-Review, 4,164 people in Washington ended their lives with a firearm between 2010 and 2017. That accounts for almost half of all suicides and 78 percent of gun deaths.
Among other findings:
• 85 percent of gun suicides are men and boys, whereas men and boys make up 77 percent of suicides overall
• The youngest of the dead were a pair of 12-year-olds, and a total of 208 teenagers killed themselves over the eight-year period
• The oldest suicide was a 101-year-old man, and 63 people were 90 or older
• Handguns were the cause of death in 59 percent of gun suicides, and rifles and shotguns in 18 percent.
The toll is especially pronounced in rural counties, where suicides rates are typically higher, and where a greater percentage of suicides involve a firearm, according to Department of Health data.
Ball said the young man’s death in her shop pushed her to retrain her staff.
She’s now one of the first Spokane gun retailers involved in the Safer Homes Coalition, an effort to train firearms retailers and pharmacists on suicide prevention to help them avoid supplying the means for someone to take their own life.
On a daily basis, that mostly means talking to customers about safe storage at home. Gun owners often think about making sure young children can’t reach firearms at home, but Ball’s job is to point out that older family members in crisis are a far bigger risk.
The Safer Homes Coalition is a partnership between Forefront Suicide Prevention, a University of Washington social-impact center, and the Second Amendment Foundation, a Washington group that educates and lobbies in favor of the right to private gun ownership.
Jennifer Stuber, a UW social-work professor, is the founder of Forefront and is a co-chair of the coalition. She started working in suicide prevention in 2011, after losing her husband to a suicide by gun.
The coalition’s work is based on decades of research showing that limiting a suicidal person’s access to a means of suicide is effective at reducing risk.
That idea isn’t always intuitive, and many people mistakenly believe that if someone wants to end their own life, they’ll find a way to do it. But in many cases, suicide is an impulsive act.
Often, according to research, the amount of time that lapses between when someone starts having suicidal thoughts and the time they make an attempt is less than an hour. In one study interviewing 153 survivors of a suicide attempt, nearly one-quarter said they’d deliberated for less than five minutes.
Access to firearms is usually at the top of the list for people focused on prevention because they’re especially lethal. About 83 percent of suicide attempts with a firearm are fatal, according to a 2000 study in the American Journal of Public Health.
“My husband walked into a gun store and within two hours came out of the gun store and ended his life,” she said. She realized that even with her social-work background, she’d been ill-prepared to help him and pushed for a 2012 law in his memory that required suicide-prevention training for mental-health professionals in Washington.
Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, said Stuber approached him about three years ago wanting to partner on suicide prevention. They talked about ways to stop firearm suicides “without demonizing guns or gun owners or gun rights groups,” Gottlieb said.
Gottlieb is a well-known conservative political commentator and gun-rights activist who’s written more than a dozen books in support of the right to bear arms.
Stuber said working with people on the front lines — gun owners, gun retailers and their advocacy groups — is a better strategy for preventing suicides using firearms.
That’s what brought Gottlieb to the table. He said the public-health approach to gun suicides often treats gun ownership itself as a health problem.
“That pushes gun owners from wanting to work on these areas because what happens is they feel their rights are under attack and they feel threatened,” he said. “You can’t attack the person, their lifestyle, the fact that they own firearms and expect them to work with you on suicide prevention.”
Gottlieb said they also want to encourage gun owners to seek help proactively if they’re the ones in crisis. For a veteran who’s struggling with thoughts of suicide, that might mean calling up a buddy and asking if he can hold on to your guns until you’re feeling better.
“If they’re having a crisis, they don’t want to hand their gun over to the government because they don’t necessarily trust the government with their gun rights,” Gottlieb said. Calling a friend or family member is often more doable.