The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry’s top trade group, is partnering for the first time with the country’s leading suicide prevention organization. The ambitious goal of the collaboration: averting nearly 10,000 deaths over the next decade.
The program, initiated by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, will strive to educate people on the risk factors and warning signs of suicide, and provide guidance on how best to talk to someone who may be considering trying to end his or her own life, says Robert Gebbia, the chief executive of AFSP.
Notably, the program will also recommend blocking family members who are suicidal from accessing firearms by, for example, emphasizing the importance of securely locking guns away. It is not clear whether the AFSP guidance will include specific suggestions about how to remove weapons from potentially suicidal people. The NSSF, which represents thousands of gun dealers and manufacturers, provided input into the program and is also promoting it.
Gun groups have traditionally been reluctant to acknowledge that the presence of a firearm poses an increased risk to people who are considering taking their own lives. Gebbia says buy-in from the NSSF is especially important in persuading people that blocking gun access in certain situations is about saving lives, not depriving people of their rights.
“This isn’t giving up the firearm forever. It’s during that crisis,” Gebbia tells The Trace. “This is not a Second Amendment issue. It’s a way to make sure that people at risk of suicide shouldn’t have access to any of the means,” he says.
More than half of all suicides in the U.S. are carried out with a firearm. Bullets are exceptionally lethal: In 2014, about 87 percent of gun suicide attempts were fatal, compared to just three percent of attempts by drug overdoses, according to an analysis of Centers for Disease Control data.
The suicide prevention and gun trade group organizations will distribute materials to shooting range operators and gun safety instructors, who will include suicide prevention in their curriculum, and have material on hand for customers and students. A pilot program will be launched next month in four states: Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, and New Mexico. The goal is to take the program nationwide within two years, Gebbia says.
The program is an arm of the AFSP’s Project 2025, which aims to reduce the suicide rate by 20 percent. Based on an analysis done with the consulting firm CALIBRE Systems, AFSP predicts that its firearm education effort could save 9,500 lives in the next decade, if widely adopted.
There is no controlled data to support the group’s estimate, but Michael Anestis, a researcher who studies suicide at the University of Southern Mississippi, says he believes the program could achieve its objective. He says it reaches a population that doesn’t often confront the risks associated with gun ownership. “What we’ve got is a situation where most of our resources go to treatment, which is great, but treatment relies on people coming in,” Anestis says.
Anestis calls the partnership AFSP’s partnership with the gun industry trade group “enormous,” and says its credibility within the gun-owning community will translate to saved lives. Though many suicide prevention groups, such as AFSP, are staunchly apolitical, their firearms-related efforts are often interpreted as means of gun control. As a result, suicide prevention and pro-gun groups rarely collaborate.
“Any conversation about guns in our country is usually so divisive and emotional and counterproductive,” Anestis says. “To present what we do in a culturally sensitive and effective way to [gun owners] is key. Without it, there is a complete disconnect.”
He adds, “If this kind of partnership can become standard practice, that is a pivot point in suicide prevention.”
Prior to 2015, as policy, the AFSP did not work with gun industry groups. “We stayed away from gun groups because we were afraid that we would become enmeshed in other political issues,” says Nancy Farrell, Chair of AFSP’s National Board of Directors.
But after Farrell and her colleagues watched the rates of gun suicides climb — up 13 percent between 2007 and 2013 — she says they were spurred to reach out to the NSSF last year. “It’s something we talked through carefully,” she says. “I think when people understand the numbers, they would see that ignoring the opportunity of this partnership would be a failure.”
The NSSF declined to comment for this article, but experts say its partnership with the ASFP is emblematic of a growing willingness from gun groups to engage with firearm suicide. Just five years ago, the NSSF rejected a request to join the Gun Shop Project, a program that teaches gun shop retail and range workers how to identify customers who may be at risk for suicide, according to Cathy Barber, a suicide prevention expert at Harvard University School of Public Health, and a founder of the project.
“It was a new concept to them, and over the years they have become more interested and more educated,” Barber says.
The Gun Shop Project was launched by an ad-hoc team of suicide prevention advocates, public health professionals, and pro-gun groups in New Hampshire. Despite some resistance from gun shop owners reluctant to assume the duties of mental health professionals, the project now has a presence in over two dozen states. Gun industry groups have become more tuned-in to the issue, Barber says, and some have reached out to the Gun Shop Project without prompting.
“Most gun groups have a culture around firearm safety, around protecting the family, so extending that to suicide prevention can be a natural fit,” she says.
Moving forward, AFSP is open to partnering with other gun groups both at the state and national level, Gebbia says. The largest, the National Rifle Association, has yet to include suicide prevention in its firearm training materials, though it did nod at the issue earlier this year when it endorsed a Washington State bill that encourages firearm dealers to participate in suicide prevention education.
“There is zero question that firearms are the single biggest leverage point for lowering the national suicide rate,” Anestis says. “[The program] is a first step, but it’s not as if the problem is solved.”