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Firearm safety group targets suicide at the source

As Western states outpace the national average on gun suicides, one group looks to sellers for help.

 

In the months following her 15-year-old brother-in-law’s suicide in 2010, Meghan Francone could not stop thinking about the details leading up to his death: his increasingly devout religious practices, or the gifts—like a computer for Christmas, the free airline tickets—he said wouldn’t be needing. Put together, they indicated a person who desperately needed someone to see he was struggling.

But it was the unsecured gun in the basement of her brother-in-law’s house that Francone dwelled on most. Now 31, she’d survived her own suicide attempt at 14, after cutting herself. What if she had found a gun, as Austin had?

Growing up in rural northwestern Colorado, Francone never saw guns as a threat. Her father was a police officer and she later married a hunter who owns 11 firearms, all secured. “I personally I don’t own them, but I do have a concealed carry permit,” she says. “It’s my responsibility to be educated.”

Even after her brother-in-law’s suicide, Francone did not become “anti-gun.” But she could not ignore the fact that in Colorado, 78 percent of people who attempt suicide do so with a gun. And of those attempts, over 90 percent are fatal (compared with less than 1 percent for cutting). So Francone, who is also a member of the National Rifle Association, has become an advocate for firearm suicide awareness.

Two years ago, she became a local coordinator for Colorado’s Gun Shop Project, a state-funded initiative that began in 2014 in the western part of the state to bring more suicide awareness to gun sellers and shooting ranges.

The goal is to find local representatives who are both advocates for suicide prevention and supportive of gun-rights, says Jarrod Hindman, the director of Colorado's Office of Suicide Prevention. Ambassadors urge retailers and shooting range owners to display posters and distribute brochures that help identify customers who may be at risk of suicide. That could be someone interested in buying a handgun without any apparent knowledge of guns, for example, or a person who struggles to answer basic questions about why he or she is purchasing a particular model. The project also informs gun dealers about options for responding to such customers, such as suggesting the buyer take some time to think over the purchase and notifying other local dealers and the police.

“We really frame it as a firearm safety issue,” says Hindman. “For us to be successful, politics cannot come up.”

Instead, Francone emphasizes the data: Nationwide, suicide now accounts for two-thirds of all gun deaths, far outnumbering gun homicides. While experts acknowledge that the reasons for that are complicated and varied, numerous studies have shown that high rates of gun ownership are one of the most powerful predictors of suicide risk.

In Colorado, where guns are involved in the majority of the state's high suicide rates, a fledgling initiative is recruiting the gun community itself to advocate on behalf of suicide prevention.
Michael Saechang/Flickr

It’s not that gun owners are suicidal, but they're more likely to die in the event that they do become suicidal. That’s because most suicides are impulsive acts: a person has likely been struggling for a long time, but it’s the moment the divorce papers arrive or a job layoff occurs, that the person looks for a means of suicide.

“It really matters which method you’re reaching for,” says Catherine Barber, a Harvard researcher who studies the link between firearms and suicide. “A lot of research indicated that access to a gun made a difference, but no one was talking about it in the suicide prevention movement because they thought it would mean we’re talking about gun control.”

That perception is particularly prevalent in the rural West, where suicide rates are outpacing a fast-rising national average. According to the latest data, the national suicide rate is 13 per 100,000 (a 24 percent increase since 1999). In most Western states, the number is far higher: Montana, Alaska, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Utah have the top five highest suicide rates in the country, with over 20 per 100,000 people. Between 2000 and 2014, suicides increased by more than 51 percent in those states, while rising by less than 30 percent nationwide.

But most of the gun-control measures proposed in the wake of mass shootings like that in Orlando, Florida, in June, would have little effect on suicide. And when it comes to tackling suicide, the “guns are bad” message is often counterproductive, says Barber, alienating the very people who are most at risk.

Colorado’s Gun Shop Project helps counteract that message. Enlisting the pro-gun community for suicide prevention efforts makes sense for other reasons as well, says Barber, who helped coordinate a similar program in New Hampshire. In the past, the advocates tended to focus solely on screening people for mental health issues and getting them into treatment, but that strategy was missing people — men in particular.

“A lot of guys don’t like the idea of sitting in a room with a stranger and talking about their problems,” Barber says. “The gun community understands that culture.” Working with the community has helped advocates adopt more creative approaches for reaching those at-risk men, such as offering to hold onto a friend’s guns for awhile if he shows signs of depression.

The project has expanded from five to nine counties in Colorado with plans for adding an additional six. Eventually, Hindman hopes to bring hunter safety courses and gun shows into the fold as well.

Francone says her efforts through the Gun Shop Project have received mixed reactions among gun retailers, with some fearing that displaying information about suicide might hurt their sales or could mean a covert gun take-away. Others, though, are more receptive to the idea.

Ken Constantine, the owner of Elk River Guns in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, says he worries that a gun he sells might end up killing someone. Still he is wary, too, of taking on the responsibility of identifying customers who may be suicidal — that's a job for mental health professionals, not for gun retailers, he says. Constantine has always tried to screen potential customers for suicide risk, but a few years ago, he missed one. He learned of the suicide a week after the sale, when police traced the victim's gun to his shop. It was a shock, Constantine said, because the customer “seemed completely normal.”

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for HCN.