Most gun deaths in this country are suicides.
And suicide rates are rising in nearly every state, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with New Hampshire near the top of the list.
Over the past 10 years, an unlikely team of gun owners and public health experts in that state has come together to work on a prevention campaign.
The Gun Shop Project educates gun sellers about the signs of suicide and encourages them not to make a sale if they think someone is struggling.
3 Deaths In 6 Days
Ralph Demicco, the project's co-founder, often mentions two phone calls when he tells its origin story.
The first call came about 20 years ago, when Demicco owned Riley’s Gun Shop in Hooksett. On the other end of the line was Elaine Frank, then program director of the Injury Prevention Center at Dartmouth College.
“Not to stereotype, but generally people from the medical community and people from the firearms community don't share a lot of common ground,” Demicco recalled recently, laughing.
Frank was calling to see if Demicco would work with her to build a firearm safety program in New Hampshire. Demicco, skeptical at first, eventually came around.
The second call also came from Frank a few years later. Demicco and Frank knew each other well by this point, through their work on the New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition, but it didn’t make the phone call any easier.
“It’s one of those calls where it’s like, 'Ugh, I don’t really know if I want to do this,' ” Frank recalled.
There had been three deaths by suicide in a six-day period, and each person had purchased a gun from Demicco’s store.
Demicco was stunned. He hadn’t heard anything about it.
“Living with the idea that one of your customers has taken his or her life, it’s not a light burden -- it’s very uncomfortable,” he said.
Demicco thought of his gun store as a “socially responsible shop,” a place that never sold guns just to turn a profit. The unofficial motto, Demicco said, was “firearms for the responsible.” He required employees to make sure buyers showed knowledge of how guns worked — and if they had any reservations, employees were free to refuse the sale.
“Here we have what I consider an excellent program,” Demicco said. “And yet it failed, I felt awful — I [didn’t] understand it.”
So together, Demicco and Frank went back to the other members of their coalition and decided gun shops would be the best place to start a prevention campaign.
Frank knew that firearms are used for the majority of suicides across the country.
“It’s not because firearm owners are more likely to be depressed or have mental illness or even more likely to attempt suicide,” Frank said. “But a suicide attempt with firearm is far more likely to be lethal than by almost any other means.”
'I Know The Demons When I See Them'
So Demicco, Frank and other Gun Shop Project members traveled to gun stores around New Hampshire, handing out posters and cards that describe signs of suicidal behavior, and talking to employees about how to avoid selling a firearm to someone who could be suicidal.
Some shop owners were still skeptical. Demicco said many of them felt it was a trick — another way to blame guns for violence.
“I had one gun shop call me and say, ‘Hey. What’s going on here?’ And I told him. He said, ‘You think this is innocuous?’ I said, ‘Absolutely, it’s fine. I said, ‘Trust me, I know the demons when I see them, this is not one of them,' ” Demicco said.
In the end, nearly half of New Hampshire gun stores hung up the prevention posters in their shop and the coalition called it a success. Their work has inspired states all over the country to create their own versions of the Gun Shop Project.
But this all started 10 years ago, before Sandy Hook, Parkland and other mass shootings. And that skepticism from gun owners has grown, as division over gun issues has widened.
A New Video For Firearms Classes
That divisiveness has been at the forefront lately as the Gun Shop Project tries a new approach this summer: They want New Hampshire firearms instructors to show a video about suicide prevention in their classes.
Thomas Brown has been a firearms instructor for over two decades. He teaches at the Manchester Firing Line indoor range in Manchester, and he joined the Gun Shop Project a few years ago.
Lately, he’s helped craft the language of the video in a way that he said could help win over the gun side.
“We as gun owners are constantly under attack, and one of the things that’s constantly thrown in our face is the number of gun deaths,” he said. “And when you realize that two-thirds, roughly, are suicides, that if we could reduce that number, wouldn’t that be good for us?”
The point of the prevention video is to educate about the signs of suicide — and to encourage those watching to hold on to a friend's or family member's gun if it seems like they’re having a hard time.
Catherine Barber, senior researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health and Gun Shop Project member, said most people who become suicidal often recover from those feelings, so it can help to make sure there isn’t a lethal weapon at hand.
The video is about 5 minutes long, opening with dramatic music and a booming voiceover about suicide prevention. It tells a story of a man who appears deeply depressed after his wife has left him — and taken the dog — and it shows how the man’s brother and sister-in-law step in to take his guns away.
Amid the narration and public health pointers is language that Brown believes will help win over skeptical gun owners. At one point, the narrator notes:
Suicide deaths are terrible for everyone involved. Firearm suicides also hurt the cause of liberty when the numbers are used to justify more gun laws. Let’s work together to reduce all suicides, especially the ones where a firearm may be used.
Brown has tested the video in a few of his classes and he said it seems to have already increased awareness. He said most viewers nod their head approvingly, while others said the idea of removing guns from a person who seems suicidal "hadn’t even crossed their mind."
Barber implemented a similar, state-run program in Utah, and she said she’s found that people often join in when they’re invited to be part of a solution.
“The wonderful thing I’ve noticed from working with gun rights guys is a lot of them really think outside the mental health treatment box,” Barber said. “They know some of them and their friends are not going to go to a therapist so it’s: OK, what else do we have in the toolkit to keep somebody alive?”
This is exactly the reaction Frank and Demicco were hoping for when they launched the Gun Shop Project. Demicco said he thinks they can make an even bigger impact at training classes than they could in gun shops.
“Firearms instructors, they reach a tremendous amount of people, all new shooters," Demicco said. "What better way to make people aware than to take a new shooter and — if I can use that terrible term — indoctrinate them into thinking positively about suicide prevention?"
For Frank, this project and partnership also speak to an even larger kind of progress. To create the suicide prevention video and work up the posters, people from New Hampshire’s mental health, public health and gun communities all had to sit down and work together.
And to do that, they all decided they would only focus on gun suicides — nothing else.
“[It] doesn’t mean you have to give up your view on guns or on public health or on overreaching government or whatever — you can keep doing all those things. But in the meetings, you focus on what you have in common,” she said.
The country seems to have lost this consensus building among people with opposing views, Frank said, and she thinks it's worth trying to bring back.
If you or someone you know exhibits any of the warning signs of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
This story was first published by New Hampshire Public Radio.
This segment aired on June 14, 2018.
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