During one week in the spring of 2009, three customers walked into Riley’s Sport Shop in the small New Hampshire town of Hookset. Each customer walked out with a gun. Each committed suicide within a few hours.
The suicides sparked an unusual partnership between mental health experts and gun retailers across the country to launch the Gun Shop Project in 2011, an effort to educate gun stores and firing ranges about how to spot potentially suicidal customers, and avoid selling or renting them a firearm. The program provides shop owners with tip sheets listing suicide warning signs, posters alerting customers to store guns carefully if friends or relatives are in crisis, and wallet cards with the number of a suicide-prevention hotline.
In the summer of 2014, Colorado adopted its own Gun Shop Project, a state-funded pilot program in which gun sellers and range operators in five western Colorado counties were invited to help raise awareness about suicide. The program asks rural gun store owners to have materials in-store about suicide prevention, and perhaps not sell firearms to someone who is exhibiting suicidal signs.
In Lakewood, Colorado, Bristlecone Shooting, Training and Retail Center is once such store that recognizes a role gun stores can play in preventing suicides. On a wall in the shop’s showroom, a new poster highlights a growing concern about suicide. It reads: Gun Owners Can Help! The poster lists signs someone may be suicidal and a phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK.
Jacquelyn Clark, co-owner of Bristlecone, said there’s now an 11th Commandment on gun safety rules: Consider off-site storage — family, friends, some shooting clubs, police departments or gun shops — if a family member may be suicidal.
And at the urging of Police Commander Keith Caddy in Montrose, Colorado, Keith Carey, owner of Black Canyon Gunsmithing, agreed last year to participate in the Gun Shop Project.
He has a poster by the door offering advice about ways to keep guns out of the hands of friends or relatives at risk of dying by suicide. On his counters, he displays wallet cards with information about a suicide hotline. He has even offered to temporarily store guns of those who ask.
High-profile shootings in San Bernardino, California, and elsewhere grabbed national headlines in 2015, but mass killings account for a small portion of annual gun deaths in America.
Suicides far outnumber any other type of death by firearms. In 2014, according to federal data, there were 33,599 firearm deaths; 21,334 of them were suicides. That figure represents about half of all suicides that year; but in several western Colorado counties, more than 60 percent of suicides involve firearms.
Suicide is the seventh-leading cause of death in Colorado and more than half of those suicides involved a firearm. 527 Coloradans took their own lives with a firearm in 2014.
Suicide presents a distinctive challenge for shooting ranges: Occasionally, someone will rent a gun, then use it and die by suicide at the site.
At the Family Shooting Center at Denver’s Cherry Creek State Park, there have been three such incidents since 2004.
That’s where the Gun Shop Project comes in. It teaches gun shop retail and range workers how to look for potential red flags, such as whether a customer appears distraught, seems uninterested in a safety kit, or makes comments that could suggest they intend to harm themselves (“I won’t have the gun for long”). The project also equips gun dealers with options for responding to such cases — for example, by asking them why they want to buy firearm; suggesting the buyer take some time to think over the purchase; and notifying other local dealers, range owners, or police. Business owners can also display materials to heighten awareness among their customers: a poster about suicidal warning signs; a firearms safety brochure; a wallet-sized card that lists the national suicide hotline.
However, some gun stores and ranges are leery about the Gun Shop Project, concerned about being perceived as mental health professionals and any potential liability they may become exposed to.
Ken Constantine, owner of Elk River Guns in Steamboat Springs, said “I don’t want to sell a gun to someone to commit suicide,” he said. “That happened once in this shop — it weighs on me.” He and his staff know to look for warning signs that a customer might not be suitable to buy a gun — whether due to criminal activity like drug use or straw purchasing, or if they appear to be mentally unstable. “When I get a stranger in my store, I profile the living daylights out of ’em.”
But Constantine is troubled by the Gun Shop Project’s offer of training for shop employees so they can better identify customers at risk of suicide.
While he’s willing to do his part, Constantine feels that the onus is on local mental health professionals to inform gun dealers about who might be at risk for suicide. “I think they’re trying to put their professional responsibility to diagnose and report and take preventative action — they’re trying to put that on our shoulders,” says Constantine, who’s been in the firearms business since 1989. “I am not a mental health professional. I’m a gunsmith.”
“I won’t assume the responsibility of a mental health professional,” he said.
Other gun shop owners rely on the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System to flag people with severe mental illness, though only those a judge has deemed mentally unfit to own a gun or who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution.
According to spokesperson Jennifer Baker, the NRA has no position on Colorado’s Gun Shop Project, though it has endorsed a bill in Washington State encouraging gun dealers to participate in suicide prevention efforts. “The NRA views suicide as a mental health problem,” she said.