Early one evening in February 2014, a man in his 40s walked into Rowdy’s Range & Shooter Supply in St. George, Utah, and asked to rent a gun for target practice. He was sociable and seemed calm as he handed over his driver’s license, went to his assigned lane and began shooting at the target, stopping every so often to chat with off-duty police officers in the lane next to his.
Just before his hour was up, an employee alerted him. The man thanked him, and the worker left. Then, still standing in the practice lane, the man turned the gun on himself and took his own life.
After paramedics took his body away and customers were escorted from the range, the company’s owner, Rowdy Reeve — who opened the range three months earlier with two partners in an industrial park at the edge of the Mojave Desert — began asking himself questions: Was there anything his staff should have noticed about the customer before handing him a gun? Could they have helped him?
“It was like a punch in the gut,” Reeve said.
That reckoning led Reeve and the two other co-owners to join a growing movement that aims to reduce gun suicides by spreading prevention techniques among firearm owners and sellers. It’s an effort that is slowly sweeping through gun country ─ states with high rates of firearm ownership, like Utah, that have shouldered a disproportionate weight of America’s rise in suicides. The endeavor has brought together longtime adversaries: the medical community, which typically sees guns as a public health threat, and the firearms industry, which distrusts most efforts to restrict access to guns.
Gun dealers, range owners and firearms instructors have found that suicide prevention fits into their mission to promote the safe use of guns. Hundreds of them around the country now share suicide-prevention literature, emphasize prevention techniques in their concealed-carry classes, teach workers to recognize distress among customers and welcome prevention advocates to firearm trade shows.“This is a new way to go about reducing suicidal persons’ access to guns ─ not by promoting an anti-gun agenda but by asking gun owners to be part of the solution,” said Catherine Barber, who directs the Means Matter Campaign to prevent suicide at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center. “Vilifying them isn’t going to work.”
‘WE WANT TO WORK WITH THE GUN OWNERS’
The new public-health emphasis on gun suicides is driven in part by statistics showing that they are far more prevalent than homicides committed with a firearm. That is particularly so in rural areas and the intermountain West. Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Idaho and New Mexico all rank in the top 10 for suicide rates, with more than 20 deaths per year per 100,000 people (the national rate is 13.5 deaths and rising).
Unlike “red flag” laws that allow police officers to temporarily confiscate guns from people deemed a danger to themselves or others, the partnership of the gun industry and the suicide-prevention community requires no new legislation. It is voluntary, focusing on public-education campaigns to make people more comfortable talking about guns and suicide, and encouraging gun owners who feel suicidal to hand their weapons over to someone they trust. While there are no studies yet measuring the campaigns’ effect on death rates, advocates gauge success by the growing interest in the gun industry.