During one week in the spring of 2009, three shooting deaths occurred in three small towns in southwest New Hampshire. The victims were connected by more than time and geography: Each one had purchased a gun that week from Riley’s Sport Shop in the town of Hooksett, and within a few hours, used it to commit suicide.
At the time, Ralph Demicco was the owner of Riley’s, the state’s largest and oldest gun shop. When he learned about the suicide victims’ connection to his store, he asked his sales clerks if they’d noticed anything peculiar during the transactions. None of them reported seeing any red flags, and all three purchasers had passed a federal background check. “Apparently our marginal screening process did not pick up on any of these individuals,” Demicco tells The Trace. As the news of the suicides spread, he wondered whether there was anything he and his staff could do to prevent a repeat scenario.
That summer, Demicco began meeting with an unlikely team of pro-gun organizations, suicide prevention advocates, and public health professionals. Two years later, in 2011, the group launched the Gun Shop Project, an effort to educate gun stores and firing ranges about how to spot potentially suicidal customers, and avoid selling or renting them a firearm. Now in its fifth year, the Gun Shop Project highlights the gun industry’s potential to play a role in suicide prevention. Dozens of New Hampshire gun dealers have signed on to the initiative. In other states, however, the push has been less successful, with some dealers leery of presenting themselves as mental health professionals, and others viewing the effort as a clandestine gun control initiative.
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 — for example, there were more than twice as many gun suicides as gun homicides in 2013, the most recent year for which Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data is available. Among the more than 40,000 people who commit suicide each year, about half do so with a gun.
“Guns are the most lethal method out there,” says Tom Gangel, the regional director of a Colorado community mental health center. He helped launch a pilot of the Gun Shop Project in his state in 2014. Gangel says while some people attempt suicide after long deliberation, research shows that many attempt it during a short-term crisis. One study showed that a quarter of suicide survivors made the decision in less than five minutes. “If you can get another sunrise on these folks that might’ve killed themselves today,” Gangel says, “tomorrow they’re probably not going to feel the same.”
That’s where the Gun Shop Project comes in. For starters, 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. The idea, Gangel says, is that “some of these folks are walking through the gun store and they may get some of this literature and go, ‘This is really talking about me.’”
In 2011, the campaign’s organizers mailed the materials to 67 gun shops in New Hampshire. Within four months, nearly half the shops were using its posters and brochures. The Gun Shop Project has since slowly gained ground in two dozen other states, being incorporated into a firearm instructor module in Utah, diner placemats in Michigan, and gun shows in Nevada. But it’s also met resistance in other pro-gun states, such as Colorado.
“If I walk into my communities, I immediately hit a wall,“ says Meghan Francone, a prevention advocate who for the past year has been working to roll out the Gun Shop Project in two rural counties in northwest Colorado, where the gun suicide rate is about 30 percent higher than the national average. Francone owns guns and belongs to the NRA. She also has a personal history with suicide. Years after she survived her own attempt at 14, her teenage brother-in-law killed himself with his father’s gun. Though she believes the gun industry can play a part in suicide prevention, she’s encountered local gun sellers in Colorado who are dubious of the effort.
One skeptic is Ken Constantine, owner of Elk River Guns in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Constantine says 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,” he tells The Trace.
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.”
Other shop owners rely on the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System to flag people with severe mental illness. “There’s always been a process through the ATF’s current paperwork to eliminate someone who is not mentally able to purchase a firearm,” one Colorado gun shop employee tells The Trace. Yet that system doesn’t catch everyone: It flags only those a judge has deemed mentally unfit to own a gun or who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution. In a recent case, a Missouri woman was able to purchase a firearm despite her mother’s warnings to a local pawn shop that she was schizophrenic and suicidal. The woman ended up using the gun to fatally shoot her father.
Aside from a reluctance to take on the role of mental health workers, some shop owners point to longstanding suspicions in the gun community toward public health efforts. John Yule, manager of Wildlife Taxidermy & Sports Center in Manchester, New Hampshire, jumped on board with the project from the moment he heard about it. But he understands why other shop owners are wary. “I think there’s a fear among some stores — it’s been expressed vehemently — that it’s just another backdoor attempt at grabbing guns,” he tells The Trace. “You gotta convince people that this isn’t about gun control, it’s suicide control.”
Demicco, for his part, believes intervention is an imperative. “If they manifest it outwardly, that’s where we come in. If they don’t make eye contact, if they’re in distress, shut the sale down.”
He recalls one Saturday morning years ago, when a woman came into the shop. She was well-dressed, “like she’d just walked out of the IBM boardroom.” Yet he sensed something was wrong. She pointed to a gun, and as he took it out of the case, he asked, “Ma’am, should you be buying this?” The woman broke into tears, explaining that she’d been contemplating ending her life. Demicco invited her to sit down in the back of the store while he called her doctor.
Demicco thinks he may have saved that woman’s life that day. “You can’t know what’s in people’s hearts,” says Demicco, who recently retired. “We can put a little stumbling block in the way of their intentions and possibly give ’em just a little bit of time to realize that a long-term solution to a short-term problem is not the way to go.”
[Photo courtesy Riley’s Sport Shop]