Can education and voluntary outreach protect gun owners from the high suicide risk?
We reported Monday that two-thirds of gun deaths in the U.S. are the result of suicide. More than 21,000 Americans take their lives using a firearm every year. That's much higher than the number of homicides or deaths by mass shootings.
For the first time, suicide prevention groups have begun partnering with the gun industry, launching programs they hope will curb the violence. But these experiments make some people nervous.
Raising awareness among the people selling guns
Picture a corporate training video, which is sort of what this is. An older white guy enters a gun store looking nervous. "Hi, good morning. I’m Wayne!" He's greeted by Robin Ball, an actual gun store and shooting range owner from Spokane, WA.
"Now my wife and I have been doing some research and talking a lot about getting our first handgun," he says. Ball then acts out a conversation she wants more people in her industry to have with actual gun buyers.
"Something we don’t often think about," she says, "suicide is not at an all-time low. It is a very tragic number."
This is personal
In fact, suicide is rising. In 2016, the latest year there’s good reliable data, nearly 23,000 Americans shot themselves to death. Those most at risk are white men.
For a growing number of people in gun culture this is personal. They've seen friends die, as well as family and customers. Ball herself told NPR that a man took his life with a firearm at her shooting range. "It’s not something I want our staff to ever go through again," she said.
Ball is part of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a big industry group. After the violence in her store, she joined their effort to educate gun show operators and retailers about suicide. The goal is to help them look for warning signs in customers before a firearm is sold.
"I’ll have an employee who will say, hey, the hair on my neck is standing up – I don’t want to do this [gun] transfer," she explains. "I’m like, 'Okay, we’re not going to do it.'"
Ball says stores can refuse to sell a gun. They also have information they can share with people who they think might be at risk, including suicide help-line numbers and advice for safely storing guns already in the home.
Prevention groups were looking for a trusted way to reach gun owners
The industry’s main partner in this project is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. CEO Robert Gebbia says his organization set a national goal to stop the steady rise of suicide deaths and then cut it by 20 percent.
"Unless you can do something about the numbers of people who die by suicide using a firearm, you really can’t get to that 20 percent," he said.
That's because roughly half the suicide deaths in the United States are caused by firearms. It’s far and away the most lethal suicide method.
Gebbia says his team spent a year negotiating with the gun industry, developing this pilot project. Their suicide materials are now distributed at gun shows, shooting ranges and retail stores.
"So they agreed to incorporate our information. It had more credibility, more acceptance," Gebbia says. "I think if we had walked into the gun shops, our volunteer, they might have been suspicious."
Do these voluntary programs go far enough?
Given the number of gun suicide deaths, this experiment may sound modest, but the debate over guns and violence in America is really polarized and this is a rare collaboration. Supporters hope voluntary education and outreach will save lives.
Critics, meanwhile, say industry groups like the National Shooting Sports Foundation are doing the bare minimum given the scale of the public health emergency.
"I think it’s window dressing," said Erin Dunkerly, a suicide activist whose father ended his life with a firearm in 2006. "I think it’s a way for the NSSF to assure people that, 'Don’t worry, we’re doing this nice work in the community.'"
Dunkerly says for the most part the industry hasn’t embraced gun storage laws and other measures that safety experts say might really cut America's suicide rate.
These education programs are just a couple of years old. There’s little data so far to show whether they'll help to cut the suicide risk for people who do choose to have a gun in their home.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (en Español: 1-888-628-9454; for the deaf and hard of hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741-741.