Friends Don’t Let Friends … Hold Onto Guns?

Most gun deaths are suicides. A new program aimed at removing guns from at-risk people could help reduce this.

curb violence.
Could we get people with suicidal thoughts to hand over their guns, at least temporarily?

Barry Sutton/Thinkstock

Mass shootings make the headlines, but the majority of all gun deaths—nearly two-thirds each year—are actually suicides. Nearly half the people who killed themselves in 2014—21,334 out of 42,773—did so using a gun, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted in a report in April.

So, finding a way to reduce this specific type of violence could have a big impact, Robert Gebbia, CEO of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, realized. But the fraught political climate surrounding any discussion of restricting gun rights was an obvious obstacle. The CDC isn’t even allowed to fund research on gun violence, for example.

“Everyone was immobilized when they thought taking a position on guns and suicide meant taking a position on gun control,” says Cathy Barber, who directs the Means Matter Campaign at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center, which focuses on raising awareness about reducing a suicidal person’s access to lethal methods. But controversial gun control efforts—limiting gun magazine capacity, banning assault weapons, and strengthening background checks—aren’t the way to make a significant dent in preventing gun suicides.

Instead, Barber and other suicide-prevention advocates found a much more promising method that established common ground with gun rights advocates and the firearms community: They’re asking gun owners to help remove guns from anyone they suspect might be suicidal, even if it’s just temporarily.

Research shows that many suicide attempts occur during a short-term crisis. Of those who survive an attempt, 70 percent don’t attempt again. The problem with firearms is how deadly they are—the chance of surviving an attempt done with a firearm is very low. So removing a gun at the right moment can really help.

Barber likens the suicide prevention education effort to the “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” campaign launched in 1983. “It’s a ‘bro’ way of showing you care,” she says. The suicide prevention community is trying to partner with various gun advocacy groups to dispense information on how gun owners can productively intervene in these situations.

“We’re trying to create a new social norm in the gun-owning community,” she says. “If you look at any standard firearms safety brochure, you’ll see a focus on preventing accidents. In another 10 years’ time they’ll mention suicides.” These groups tend to be safety oriented, so this made sense, she points out. In the firearms community, “the culture of safety—the aspect of protecting one’s family and of neighbors looking out for neighbors—dovetails with the values around suicide prevention.”

In August,  the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Shooting Sports Foundation announced a partnership to work on this project. The two groups are developing co-branded materials about suicide risk factors and warning signs, along with suggested interventions such as temporary gun removal or safe storage, that they’ll distribute via brochures and videos at gun stores and shooting ranges. They’ll also develop training materials that can be incorporated into firearms courses.

The NSSF’s involvement will be key: As the industry trade association, the group has the credibility to reach the gun-owning community. “We’re a group that clearly doesn’t have a gun-control agenda,” says Stephen L. Sanetti, president and CEO of the NSSF. Plus, no one’s being forced into anything—participation is voluntary.

The program is being piloted in four states—Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, and New Mexico— which have high rates of suicide by firearm and strong local AFSP chapters. They hope to expand nationwide within the next two years.

Some states and counties already have similar programs. The first such effort was in New Hampshire, after three people purchased guns at the same gun shop in the space of one week in 2009 and then used them to kill themselves. In response, suicide prevention and public health advocates teamed with gun rights advocates, including the gun shop owner Ralph Demicco, to create the Gun Shop Project, an outreach and suicide-prevention education campaign geared to gun store and shooting range owners and employees. Since then, similar suicide awareness education programs for gun shops, firearms instructors, gun shows, and sportsmen’s clubs have spread to 20 other municipalities at either the county or the state level, Barber says.

In March, Washington became the first state to pass a law on suicide prevention that was supported by gun rights advocates. It was championed by Jennifer Stuber, an associate professor at the University of Washington, following the death of her husband via a self-inflicted gunshot in 2011. (She reached out to both the National Rifle Association and the Washington-based Second Amendment Foundation, and both organizations supported the legislation.) Of the 200 gun retailers in the state who have completed a survey since the law’s passage, the vast majority have said they’re willing to play a role in suicide prevention, Stuber says.

It’s hard to assess this intervention, because it’s tricky to know exactly when it works. But last month, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention announced that research it had commissioned suggests that suicide prevention education for purchasers of firearms could save at least 9,500 lives by 2025. That figure is based on a model that assesses suicide data, firearm purchasing statistics, and gun ownership rates.

One recent survey found that 28 percent of respondents knew someone who had died by suicide using a gun. It’s this commonality of grief that seems to have brought gun rights advocates to the table. As New Hampshire’s Demicco says, “It isn’t about gun control, it’s suicide control.”