University of Washington
Need help now?  Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255
Need Help Now? Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 1.800.273.8255

Simple gun safety precautions can prevent suicide

Simple gun safety precautions can prevent suicide

Debbie Reisert’s mind churns with what-ifs when she thinks about her grandson’s death by suicide at age 16. One of the biggest is what if the guns and ammunition had not been readily at hand in the mobile home where she found Brian Stephens’ body after he went missing from her nearby home in Packwood. 

Debbie Reisert’s fond memories of her late grandson Brian Stephens include this moment at a family wedding.If it hadn't been so easy for him to have access to a way to kill himself in that moment, I do think he’d be alive today,” she says. “He was really stressed, but not depressed, and kids at that age act impulsively. If he had not had access to those guns, he would have had time to think it through and do something differently. Or we might have found him and gotten help before it was too late.”

Research supports her hunch, says Forefront advisory board member Paul Quinnett, president and CEO of the Spokane-based QPR Institute for Suicide Prevention: restricting access to lethal means can prevent suicide—and firearms are used in the majority of deaths by suicide in the United States. Almost four out of QPR President Paul Quinnett, PhD: “The gun industry is focused on safe gun storage and responsibility. The challenge is to bring suicide into that conversation.”five gun deaths in Washington State are suicides, yet the public has been slow to link gun safety to suicide prevention.

“Unfortunately, when people think of guns, they think of homicides and assaults,” says pediatrician Fred Rivara, University of Washington medical faculty member and injury prevention expert. “They don’t realize that there are more gun deaths from suicide than homicide. That point needs to be emphasized more.”

Public health issue

Forefront Faculty Director Jennifer Stuber makes that point in a recent Seattle Times column headlined Focus on Suicide Prevention to Reduce Gun Deaths. She’s working with others at the state and local level to find common ground for spreading a crucial public health message:

• Always lock up guns because you never know when someone will use it to take their own life. Use a gun safe or lock box, separate from the ammunition, and don’t share the key or combination with anyone else.

• Know the suicide risk factors and warning signs, because keeping a gun away from someone who is struggling could help save that person’s life. If it’s a household member, try to store the gun somewhere else.  If you’re worried about a gun-owning friend, persuade him to give you, or someone else, the gun to lock up for safekeeping.

Pediatrician Fred Rivara, MD: “Everyone should be able to rally around the idea that we don’t want people to use guns to kill themselves.”Thus far, safe storage campaigns have faced “a slow uphill struggle” to provide real protection, says Rivara. “People are aware that guns should be stored safely, but many guns are not stored safely… not just locked up, but locked up where other individuals don’t have the key or the combination.” Unsecured guns not only pose a risk to friends and family members, but also can be stolen or misused by youth like Brian, who found the gun in a bedroom closet and the ammunition on the dresser nearby. 

Restricting access to lethal means—be it bridges, pills or guns—saves lives by buying time. Quinnett explains, “People who want to kill themselves are often in a temporary crisis that may last a few hours or a few minutes. We all should work toward discouraging them in that moment when they are in such great pain.”

Engaging the gun world

Clinical psychologist Quinnett, a former professional gun editor who still is active in shooting sports, says the gun world is very concerned about safety, but less aware of how often firearms are misused to take people’s own lives. To bridge that gap, suicide prevention experts are working with gun owners and dealers in a number of states to bring suicide into the conversation.  For example:

The New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition (NHFSC), a broad-based alliance of gun dealers, firing ranges, legislators, injury prevention and mental health advocates, researchers and volunteers, has worked closely with gun shops to develop educational materials to help them and their customers prevent suicides.

Its materials include a tip sheet to help gun shop owners and employees identify and address a potentially suicidal customer. There’s also a brochure and poster for customers urging them to be alert for signs of suicide among family and friends, to know where to call for help (1-800-273- 8255) and to make sure that guns aren’t available to those in a suicidal crisis.

The Nevada Office of Suicide Prevention consulted with the New Hampshire group and began offering suicide awareness training in partnership with the Nevada Firearms Coalition. It also staffs a booth at the gun shows with information on safe gun storage and the suicide risk, says Quinnett.

Quinnett believes similar approaches would work with the firearms community in Washington. “If we gave them fairly simple tools, that would mitigate risk for people who are looking for a firearm to end their lives,” Quinnett says, “Just a brief stall—an hour or day—serves as denial of permission to act on suicidal thoughts. Making the sale gives permission whether the seller realizes it or not.”

Forefront and QPR are working on a strategy to reach out to gun dealers and work together to save lives. If you’re not already receiving a monthly email about Forefront and news via email, sign up here. — by Sue Lockett John


For more information

Firearm Deaths in Washington State, Washington State Office of Financial Management Research Brief No. 71, 2013

Protect yourself with gun safety tips, UW Medicine Health, July 2014

LOK-IT-UP: Promoting the Safe Storage of Firearms, Public Health – Seattle & King County

Suicide prevention: A role for firearm dealers and ranges, The New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition

More guns, more suicides? Protecting a population at risk, The Deseret News, March 29, 2013