Gun shops could be difference maker for suicide prevention
Montana could learn from a New Hampshire effort that trains gun shops to recognize potentially suicidal buyers
By now, it’s a story Ralph Demicco has told a thousand times: Over a period of six days in 2009, three people bought firearms from his gun shop in New Hampshire and shot and killed themselves in a matter of hours.
When he heard the news, there was only one emotion.
“I was shocked,” he said.
Demicco owned Riley’s Gun Shop for over 40 years at the time. It was one of the largest, if not the largest in the state, for many years. He prided himself on his store policy: If a salesperson felt uncomfortable selling a gun, for whatever reason, he or she didn’t have to.
“We considered ourselves to be a socially responsible seller,” Demicco said. “I never had quotas for salesmen, never told people the most important thing to do was make a sale.”
So when he learned of what happened, he felt like there was nothing he could do.
“It was kind of amazing we would miss three individuals in a period of six days,” he said.
When he was at a loss for words, though, the person who informed him of the incident, then the program director of the Dartmouth College Injury Prevention Center Elaine Frank, had an idea. The two would start up the New Hampshire Firearms Safety Coalition and lay the groundwork for what would be called the Gun Shop Project.
The idea was simple: Provide gun shop owners and employees with guidelines on how to recognize people expressing potential suicide ideation so they can avoid or at least delay selling them guns, and give them brochures and posters to educate customers and increase awareness.
Nine years later, the project has found its footing. Nearly half of gun shops in the state are displaying brochures, states across the country have adopted the concept, and while it’s hard to identify how many lives the project has saved, anecdotes abound of salespeople stopping a purchase before tragedy happens.
It’s an example Montana might follow. For the past 30 years, the Big Sky state has ranked in the top five in number of suicides in the entire nation, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Sixty-three percent of those suicides are carried out through firearms, 13 percent higher than the national average.
Cathy Barber, director of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Means Matter campaign, which has worked with the New Hampshire Firearms Safety Coalition, said that because firearms are so quick and fatal, people are much more likely to die than any other method.
Like New Hampshire, Montana is a gun-friendly state that is unlikely to pass major gun control legislation anytime soon. Unlike New Hampshire, Montana hasn’t started much of a dialogue with gun owners about suicide prevention.
Karl Rosston, Montana’s first and only suicide prevention coordinator since 2007, said when it comes to firearms, his primary focus has been on safe storage, giving out thousands of gun locks to health care providers, schools and suicide prevention groups throughout the years.
His division also released a public service announcement aimed at a gun-friendly audience. It depicts a man driving down a lonely, dusk-lit Montana road to a shooting range. He talks about his emotional struggles, and how his friend offered to temporarily hold his guns for him. The video depicts him firing his gun and then putting it down, concluding, “I think he saved my life that day.”
Anything beyond these efforts – anything that might suggest the government wants to take away guns, even if that’s not the aim – and “it gets trickier,” Rosston said.
The Suicide Prevention Coalition of Yellowstone Valley, based in Billings, made its first attempt at a Gun Shop Project-type effort last fall. The plan was to gather together a group of people representing gun shops, pawn shops and shooting ranges, and talk to them about their perspectives on suicide prevention. The group invited 29 people. Only three showed up.
Undeterred, the group sent brochures out to gun shop owners after the meeting, but so far, few have made it to the countertop for customers to pick up. And when the brochures are on the counter, few are taken, said Nathan Stahley, chair of the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Yellowstone Valley.
Stahley said the coalition would like to work on the concept more in the future, but there’s a question of resources.
“The challenge of the coalition is where to put time and energy. We haven’t pushed as hard as we could,” he said.
Still, members of the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Yellowstone Valley are hopeful that these initial seeds will grow. It’ll just take time, Stahley said.
After all, New Hampshire’s success was years in the making.
Frank, who now co-chairs the New Hampshire Firearms Safety Coalition with Demicco, said their relationship with the gun community dated back to the early 90s, when she was the director of the statewide injury prevention program.
At the time, Frank and her team were looking at the leading causes of injury deaths to young people and found that firearm suicides topped the list. They created a coalition to tackle youth suicide, including pro-gun and gun control advocates alike.
One of the members of that group was Demicco. Frank said someone once told her, “If you want to get anything done around guns in this state” you need to go through him.
It was an unlikely pairing. Demicco was a lifelong gun shop owner, a card-carrying NRA member and a frequent opponent of proposed gun control legislation.
From Demicco’s perspective, mental health professionals often carried anti-gun positions, going as far as labeling guns a health hazard.
But both could agree on one thing: They didn’t want to see kids harming themselves with guns.
“Everyone thinks dying or being injured by firearms is not good,” Frank said.
On this subject, they could put aside partisan politics.
“It’s unusual,” Demicco said. “You get mental health professionals willing to put down their anti-firearms bias, working together with gun people who are willing to put down their biases.”
Though that original group essentially disbanded in the early 2000s, the relationships were set. When Frank learned about the three people who purchased guns from Demicco’s shop, she knew she could call the owner directly. Demicco was more than willing to talk, he agreed that they needed to do something and the New Hampshire Firearms Safety Coalition was born.
The relationship almost immediately paid off. When a gun-rights group launched an offensive against the project, Demicco was able to use his clout to assuage people’s fears, clearing a path forward.
Success has been hard to measure in hard data because there are many different factors that play into suicide rates. The Harvard School of Public Health started tracking the rate of suicides where newly purchased guns were used, with signs of a positive downward trend for a couple of years, but a small rise the third year. Barber said the data isn’t necessarily trustworthy, though. Medical examiners determine whether a newly purchased gun was used on a case by case basis, when they find something like a receipt from the store at the scene.
Barber said it will be a while longer before they can truly judge the project’s effectiveness. She likens it to the “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” campaign, which only found noticeable success after the messaging became a commonplace phrase in society.
“We’re kind of where that was 20 years ago. We don’t have the sort of message saturation yet where you would expect to see an impact,” she said.
What the group doesn’t have in data, it can show in anecdotes.
Demicco recalled one Saturday morning when a woman walked through the doors at Riley’s Gun Shop, “dressed like she just came from the IBM board room.” She came up to the counter, pointed at a gun and said “I’d like to purchase that gun.” No questions, seemingly no care for what kind of gun it was, no attempt at a conversation.
For Demicco, it was a warning sign. He asked her if she should be buying a gun and she started crying. He took her to a backroom to talk more, called her doctor and was able to connect her with help.
Since the Gun Shop Project’s inception in 2009, groups have picked up the idea in 17 states throughout the nation, each bringing their own interpretation. A group in Las Vegas turned their focus to gun shows, which are large, glitzy affairs that draw both locals and tourists alike. Another group in Utah found success partnering with firearm instructors, who will do segments and show videos about suicide in their trainings.
Barber, Frank and Demicco hope the model keeps spreading, and that more pro-gun groups become part of the solution. The progress they’ve seen so far has been a welcome surprise.
“That’s something that’s really been a fascinating part of this work,” Barber said. “When you approach gun stakeholders as part of the solution, rather than demonizing them as the problem, people are actually very willing to figure out ways to help.”
A note about Montana Gap series
Kate Schimel Deputy Editor-Digital High Country News
In late 2017, Montana legislators voted to substantially cut funding for mental health care, in response to a budget shortfall. In the wake of the budget cuts, a group of Montana newsrooms, in collaboration with High Country News and the Solutions Journalism Network, explored how communities are preventing the state’s mental health crisis from worsening. What we found was a rise in informal treatment options: Rather than replacing the mental health workers whose jobs disappeared, communities are building on-the-ground care networks. The effects of that shift on Montana’s mental health system are still emerging. This series is just the beginning of a statewide conversation about what a successful system could look like.