Gun sellers emerge as unlikely ally in fight against suicides

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 seemingly unlikely partnership has unfolded quietly, in contrast to the public divisiveness that typically characterizes
the debate over gun violence. It originated from mental health researchers and advocates, who see curbing firearm suicides
─ which make up more than half of all suicides in America, or nearly 23,000 in 2016 ─ as integral to reducing the number
of firearm deaths.

"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."

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.

"At first I was very skeptical, because we have been trained to think when people talk about suicide that it's nothing more
than a veiled attempt to take away our guns," said Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, the
state's biggest gun-rights lobbying group. "Then I checked the data."

Aposhian was drawn into the issue in 2013, when Steve Eliason, a Republican member of the Utah House of
Representatives, asked for his support on a campaign to curb suicides. The pitch included some alarming statistics: Utah
had one of the country's highest suicide rates, and half of them were by firearm. Of all of the state's firearm-related deaths,
86 percent were suicides.

Aposhian joined the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition, which has developed literature to distribute at gun shops, produced
videos and created a suicide-prevention training module for concealed-carry training courses.

"We're to the point now where we felt it would be a disservice and inappropriate to our membership to not let them know
what's going on in Utah and across the nation," Aposhian said.

The Utah partnership has trickled down to communities all over the state, including Washington County, where Rowdy
Reeve's range is and where nearly half of all households own at least one firearm and many children grow up handling
them. The suicide rate there is twice the national rate.

"We want to work with the gun owners instead of against them," said Teresa Willie, the county's suicide prevention
coordinator. She oversees a campaign that includes public-education efforts at churches, schools and law enforcement
agencies and running public service announcements on firearms and suicide before films at the local theater. "We don't
want to polarize the community at all," she said.

Reeve sought Willie out after the suicide at his range in early 2014. She visited the range, and taught his workers how to
identify warning signs from customers who could be suicidal — and how to help them.

As Reeve listened, he felt a deepening sense of responsibility.

"If we are going to be selling these things, then we should also offer people help if they have any problems," he said.

The affiliation between the gun industry and public health advocates has its roots in New Hampshire, where in April 2009 a
gun shop owner named Ralph Demicco found out that three people in one week had killed themselves using guns bought at
his store. The news shook him; he considered himself a socially responsible business owner, and was cautious about selling
firearms to people who seemed risky ─ drunk, on drugs, agitated, inexperienced. He was already a member of the New
Hampshire Firearms Safety Coalition, which pressed gun-safety issues. "I was bewildered. I didn't know what to do,"
Demicco recalled.

One of his colleagues from the coalition asked if he would help in a new suicide prevention effort, driven by research that
identified guns as a major risk factor ─ not because gun owners were more suicidal than anyone else, but because suicide is
often impulsive, and guns are an effective means of death. Suicide prevention advocates needed Demicco because they
knew gun owners would trust him more than they would public health officials. Demicco agreed, and together they created
The Gun Shop Project, distributing posters to retailers with tips on how to spot and help people who appear suicidal.

The Gun Shop Project has since spread to 10 more states, including Utah, and there are similar partnerships in about 10
others, according to the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Some are homegrown. Others are the result of a joint
venture by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade
group that distributes suicide prevention "toolkits" to retailers and ranges.

"It's a chance to overturn myths about suicide in the gun-owning community," said Bill Brassard Jr., a National Shooting
Sports Foundation spokesman.