One Saturday night in April 2017, Jenn Jacques and Bob Owens stayed up late drinking at an outdoor bar in Atlanta. They had worked together for more than two years, and Owens had become like an older brother to Jacques. On this Saturday, Owens seemed relaxed and was looking forward to the future; he talked about an upcoming family vacation. “That was such a special night,” Jacques told me. “I can say that there was no warning.”
They were both in their 40s, and had spouses and kids back home. Jacques lived in Wisconsin, and Owens in North Carolina. They were in town for the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting. Together, they edited a popular gun-rights news and opinion website called Bearing Arms.
As a blogger, Owens was often combative and blunt. He had a tendency to mock those who disagreed with him; he believed that gun-control advocates were performative and that they ignored inconvenient facts. A few days earlier, he’d written that protesters who were planning a “die-in” near the NRA convention were staging “a dramatic hissy fit.”
But the man Jacques knew was different. “His personality was as calm as his Southern drawl,” she said. “The man was so levelheaded and thoughtful and kind, deliberate and generous.” Owens had coached his older daughter’s soccer team, and he went to equine therapy with his younger one, who had been diagnosed with autism. He had a sarcastic sense of humor, but he also sang karaoke and watched Disney movies with the kids and his wife, Christine.
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Another time when he and Jacques were out drinking, Owens decided he didn’t like the way a man was talking to her. “Sir, I would never hope to get in a fight with anyone,” Owens said to him, “But I will take you down if you go near this woman again.” Jacques laughed and told him to stop. “He was so serious in protecting others,” she said.
That night in Atlanta, Owens and Jacques were in a reflective mood. They discussed their families and aging.
“My grandma is going to be 86,” Jacques said.
“I hope I make it that long,” Owens said.
At one point, the conversation drifted to suicide.
“The most selfish thing you can do is take yourself away from your kids,” Jacques said.
“I could never do it,” Owens replied.
From time to time, Owens wrote fiery posts about public figures he saw as antagonistic toward gun rights. One subject was a doctor named Arthur Kellermann, whose research had indicated a troubling link between guns and suicide.
In 1984, Kellermann, then 29, was earning a master’s degree in public health at the University of Washington in Seattle. One day, he was sitting in the student center between classes when he heard on the news that the singer Marvin Gaye had been fatally shot with a .38-caliber revolver by his own father.
Kellermann had grown up in a conservative household in Tennessee. His father owned guns, and had taught Kellermann to shoot at the age of 10. But Gaye’s shooting, which had happened at home, got Kellerman thinking about his recent experience working in an emergency room. He had seen a number of gunshot victims, but he couldn’t remember treating a single patient who had been shot while breaking into someone’s home.
This prompted Kellermann to seek out research measuring the risks and benefits of keeping a firearm in the home. But he couldn’t find much, so he decided to embark on a simple study of his own.
With the help of the local medical examiner, Kellermann reviewed every gunshot death that had occurred in King County, where the university was located, from 1978 through 1983. During that period, there had been 398 fatalities in homes that contained a firearm. Fifty had been homicides — and of those, only nine involved self-defense. Twelve shootings had been accidents, and three deaths couldn’t be categorized. The remaining 333 incidents — almost 85 percent of the deaths — were suicides.
Kellerman’s study — titled “Protection or Peril?” — was published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1986. Because the data set was limited, he avoided drawing firm conclusions, but the numbers immediately attracted attention. A New York Times article summarizing the analysis began, “Keeping firearms in the home may endanger, not protect, the individuals who live there.” At the time, research suggested that half of all American households contained at least one gun.
Kellermann wanted to perform a case-control study, a methodology that would be more definitive. With funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he set out to investigate whether homes where guns are kept are more likely to be scenes of suicide than similar households without firearms. He and his team focused on the period from 1987 to 1990, in King County, Washington, and Shelby County, Tennessee, where Kellermann had moved. The researchers identified 565 suicides that occurred in or near a residence, almost 60 percent of which involved a gun. In 1992, the results were also published in The New England Journal of Medicine, and again the finding was clear: “The ready availability of firearms appears to be associated with an increased risk of suicide in the home.”
The danger was not unique to those who were known to have suffered from mental illness, or to those who had newly acquired a gun — most of the victims had owned their weapons for months or years. The article ended with a warning: People who keep a firearm in the home “should carefully weigh their reasons” against the “possibility that it may someday be used in a suicide.”
Kellermann’s results aligned with a long-running trend. From 1953 to 1978, the rate of gun suicide increased by 45 percent, while the rate of suicide by other methods remained steady. Gun suicide outpaced gun homicide, as it still does. Since 2017, firearm suicide has been the cause of roughly 25,000 deaths each year. Nearly 80 percent are white males ages 15 and older.
Social scientists and other researchers have looked extensively for explanations behind America’s swelling suicide rates: deindustrialization, addiction, a lack of new opportunities for working-class men, the breakdown of once-tight-knit communities. But the most crucial — and controversial — ingredient is the gun itself. Suicide is typically an impulsive act; the difference between life and death can thus turn on whether a person has access to a lethal weapon. In one study, survivors were asked at the hospital how much time had passed between ideation and attempt. About half said 10 minutes or less. And when a firearm is involved, according to a 2019 analysis in Annals of Internal Medicine, there is a 90 percent chance a suicide attempt will be fatal. One statistic is particularly clarifying: Only 5 percent of suicide attempts involve a firearm — but a gun is used in more than 50 percent of suicide deaths.
After Kellermann published his findings, the NRA told Americans that he could not be trusted. In an interview with The Morning Call, an NRA representative denounced Kellermann’s study as “dishonest,” adding, “Worldwide, nationwide, regionally there is no relationship between gun availability and suicide rates.” But in the three decades since, other studies have consistently echoed Kellermann’s conclusions.
The core of the gun-rights movement — and the firearms market — is made up of white men who live in suburbs or rural areas. These buyers are among the least likely to encounter gun violence, but the most likely to die by their own hand using a firearm. And yet the gun industry has so far avoided any real public reckoning over whether the strategy that keeps these customers buying could also be placing them in danger.
Bob Owens was the oldest of three boys, raised in a Christian household in Greenville, North Carolina. He grew up hunting deer, fishing, and playing soccer. His father liked to remind Owens and his brothers that they alone were responsible for their actions. “You made that bed,” he would say. “Now lie in it.”
As an undergraduate at East Carolina University, Owens majored in English, covered sports for the school paper, and aspired to be a novelist. An old classmate, who also worked on the newspaper, told me that she never heard him express strong political opinions or take a position on guns. He was mild-mannered, an introvert with a small circle of close friends.
One night, at a downtown pool hall, one of those friends introduced him to a nutrition major from New York named Christine. He’d seen her at parties; she had bright blue eyes, blond hair, and a warmth that made people feel comfortable and accepted. She loved music and played the violin. Christine worked at a restaurant, and when they started dating, Owens would hang out there during her shifts, just wanting to be nearby.
When the two had been together a year, Christine’s parents came to town for a birthday dinner at Owens’s childhood home. In front of both families, Owens revealed an engagement ring. “Will you?” he asked Christine. “He could barely get the words out,” she told me. “He was so nervous.”
In 1997, after they’d both graduated, the couple moved to Charlotte. Christine managed a restaurant; Owens went into IT. They liked spending time outdoors together, hiking in the North Carolina mountains. Owens kept a shotgun in the house for hunting, which was new for Christine, who hadn’t grown up with firearms and was uncomfortable around them. Mostly, the gun remained out of sight. Being a gun owner wasn’t yet a key part of Owens’s identity. “It was more of a history thing,” Christine said. “He knew the background and history of these old guns from wars … It was kind of a hobby.”
They got married in 1998 and had their first child, Maya, two years later. “Bob was over the moon,” Christine said. In 2001, she and Owens moved to Newburgh, New York, to live with her family, then rented a home of their own. The house had a lovely view of the Hudson River, but Newburgh, sitting at the intersection of two interstate highways, was a hub for crack-cocaine trafficking, and the frequent site of violent crime. The place next door to the Owens’s home was abandoned, and drug dealers and prostitutes hung out in the area. Owens and Maya tended to make their fun inside. They invented a game they called Table Ball; he would kneel in front of a table, acting as the goalie, and Maya would try to kick a ball underneath it.
When strangers loitered near their house for too long, Owens and Christine often called the cops, and sometimes Owens would go outside and confront people himself. He’d knock on a car window and ask whoever was inside to leave. At the time, he didn’t carry a gun.
Though Owens had been conservative his whole life, he wasn’t particularly outspoken about his political views until after 9/11. In the early 2000s, he was still working in IT, but he missed writing and was eager for an outlet. Then, in 2004, he started a blog called Confederate Yankee. Its slogan: “Because liberalism is a persistent vegetative state.”
In his early entries, Owens offered a vigorous defense of President George W. Bush and the Iraq War. His online writing had a brashness and a commanding authority, as if he were test-driving a new persona. In one post, Owens declared, “There is something inherent in the character of Americans that makes us want to fight for and nurture the freedom of others.” And yet the Democratic Party, he wrote, has “fought against this fine trait.”
Owens could be irreverent and contemptuous. His opponents were “idiots,” “morons,” or “dumb as a stump.” But he also strove for moral consistency, even when it was inconvenient. He was adamantly opposed to abortion while chastising “small-minded people who find a bit of satisfaction in the thought of an abortion doctor burning in Hell.” He called the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy “antiquated” and declared, “We’ve seen this kind of discrimination before from our military, but it is past time for it to stop.”
Owens posted multiple times a week, and his following grew. On Christmas Day 2004, he was feeling joyful and gracious. He commanded his readers to “go spend time with those you love,” and assured them, “I’ll be back posting tomorrow as my regular obnoxious self.”
A year later, Owens discovered an essay titled “Tribes,” by the conservative author Bill Whittle. “Tribes” argues that people belong to one of two groups, “Pink, the color of bunny ears, and Grey, the color of a mechanical pencil.” The Pink tribe, Whittle writes, is concerned with “feeling good about yourself!” For the Grey tribe, “emotion is repressed because Emotion Clouds Judgment.” Whittle’s Grey tribe knows “that sometimes bad things happen, and that these instances are opportunities to show ourselves what we are made of.” He elaborates: “My people go into burning buildings. My Tribe consists of organizers and self-starters, proud and self-reliant people who do not need to be told what to do in a crisis. My Tribe is not fearless; they are something better. They are courageous.”
The piece ignited something in Owens. He called it “the single best essay I have ever read,” and wrote that it prompted him to do “a lot of soul-searching about what it means to be Grey.” Whittle incorporated ideas from an author and a former Army Ranger named Dave Grossman, who had become a prominent right-wing thinker on the psychology of violence. Reading “Tribes” led Owens to “On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs,” Grossman’s most influential essay, which divides society into three categories. Sheep are “kind” and “gentle,” and “can only hurt one another by accident.” They are prey to wolves, who “feed on the sheep without mercy.” And then there are sheepdogs — the animals that “live to protect the flock and confront the wolf.” Sheepdogs, Grossman says, have both “a capacity for violence” and “a deep love” for “fellow citizens.”
Owens republished Grossman’s essay on his blog in 2006. “I’ve been thinking a lot about sheepdogs lately,” he wrote. “Most of us can define where we fall in Grossman’s essay if we are honest with ourselves. Most won’t be honest of course, including many of you reading this. Dishonesty to one’s self is, after all, the defining characteristic of Sheep, even perfectly nice Sheep.”
By this time, Owens and his family had moved back to North Carolina and were living in a newly built home in Fuquay-Varina, a quiet suburb 30 minutes outside of Raleigh. The school system was good. Their middle-class neighborhood had fields and a brook, and there was a park near their house.
For a while, Owens had a part-time job working the gun counter at a sporting-goods store. He could talk at length about “00-buckshot” and its ability to “penetrate 22 inches of ballistic gelatin,” or a .410 pump shotgun, which, he once blogged, was ideal for home protection because the weapon’s “low-recoil, low-report” made “follow-up shots considerably easier than would a larger-bore shotgun.” One time, Owens wrote about customers who’d come into his store asking for a whistle to scare away potential muggers. He suggested a concealed handgun as a better option, but the customers were wary. When recounting the incident, Owens wrote, “Whistlers, however you cut it, are sheep.”
In 2008, Owens got a permit to carry a concealed firearm, which he described as a transformative experience. “There’s a certain kind of freedom that comes with the responsibility of carrying arms that is hard to properly express to those who don’t,” he wrote. “Yes, guns can take lives. But far more often, experience truly bearing arms helps hone and reveal character.”
His timing coincided with a landmark Supreme Court decision, District of Columbia v. Heller, which declared that the Second Amendment guaranteed the individual right to own a firearm. One article about the decision, in Reuters, quoted Kellermann discussing the risks of keeping a loaded firearm in the home. The story infuriated Owens, who referred to Kellermann on his blog as a “radically anti-gun doctor.”
The next year, Barack Obama took office. For men like Owens, Bush represented the Grey tribe, and the new president represented the Pink. According to a former NRA staffer, who at the time was involved with membership communication and requested anonymity out of fear of retribution, “It was easy for [the] NRA to take an aggressive approach, and fearmonger.” The organization’s pitch, the former staffer said, was succinct and urgent: “Obama was coming for our guns.” Owens seemed to agree. He wrote that the president — who supported policies such as an assault-weapons ban while clarifying that he respected legal gun ownership — “continues to lie to the public about his intentions towards our Second Amendment rights.”
During the summer of 2009, a 29-year-old named Jennifer Perian was working for the NRA. She loved horses and baseball, and aspired to visit every Major League stadium in the country. Perian, who was from Colorado, hadn’t grown up around guns, but she attended George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where the NRA is located. She took the job after graduating, and soon purchased a handgun.
Perian began dating someone new, but the relationship quickly grew tumultuous. Then one day Perian’s dad, Jim, was at work when the police called. Jen had fatally shot herself. “They said it was impulsive,” Jim told me. “They called it an ‘emotional suicide.’”
The NRA paid for the funeral and flew Jim out to Virginia. “They were very nice to me,” he said. “I can tell you that.”
Three years after Perian’s death, an NRA field representative named John quietly attended a Sandy Hook memorial ceremony near the small town in Indiana where he and his family lived. John, at 45, was tall and sturdy. He had two daughters in high school, and he had worked for the NRA for 10 years, running fundraising banquets in his region. Before that, John had been a field artillery officer in the Army. Now he was in the Reserves.
The NRA had hired him with the understanding that he could still be deployed overseas. In 2011, he was sent to Iraq for most of the year. He earned a Bronze Star, one of the highest honors bestowed by the armed services. According to his certificate, he was “engaged in stability operations under constant threat and frequent attack.”
But after he returned, John was clearly suffering. His wife, who asked that her name and her family’s surname be withheld, told me that the NRA made him feel like his job was in constant jeopardy. “The expectation was to jump right back in and have all of the other stressors on top of it,” she said. When Sandy Hook happened on December 14, 2012, John had been back at work for a year, and had earned his second Field Representative of the Year award. His wife said that her husband believed in the NRA with his “whole heart.” He would tell people: “This is not a traditional job, because this is a lifestyle. This is about our Second Amendment.”
John’s wife was a teacher at a local high school and had helped organize the Sandy Hook memorial event; John attended to support his wife. “He wanted me to be very clear that, if anybody asked, he was there as himself, not as a representative of the NRA,” she said.
After the new year, John started drinking heavily. On April 5, he got arrested for a DUI while driving an NRA vehicle. “That just sent him over the edge,” John’s wife said. “He feared he was going to lose his job.” On April 7, he spent the day in his home office, working on NRA business. The next day, around lunchtime, he took one of his handguns, got on a bicycle, and rode half a mile into the woods near his home, where he shot and killed himself. “I’m not anti-gun,” John’s wife said, “but having a gun right there and accessible definitely made it easier.”
When she discovered that her husband had spent the last day of his life working for the NRA instead of with his family, she was livid. She remembers calling John’s boss and telling him, “You need to come and get this NRA stuff out of my house.” Twenty-four hours later, the boss and a colleague came and took the materials away. No one from NRA headquarters reached out to the family to express condolences, she told me.
A federal bill proposing expanded background checks for gun buyers was defeated in the Senate the following week. The NRA released a celebratory statement underscoring that the legislation would have undermined a “fundamental right,” but noted that the organization would continue to work on “fixing our broken mental health system.”
At least two more NRA employees would die by gun suicide after John. On a Monday in November 2019, Ryan Phipps, who worked in the NRA’s affinity-and-licensing department, did not show up for work. Phipps, 27, had been with the organization for half a decade. He enjoyed hunting and fishing. He played the drums and had built his own bicycle.
But privately, Phipps had a history of depression, according to a source who knew him well. Over the years, Phipps had sought treatment, and he’d seemed to be doing well until the day he used one of his own handguns to attempt suicide. He initially survived the shot, but died in the hospital two weeks later.
That same year, the NRA fired a program coordinator named Mark Richardson. HuffPost had published emails that showed him, in conversation with a prominent conspiracy theorist, raising questions about the 2018 Parkland high-school shooting. Richardson was almost 60, and he had worked at the NRA for a decade. His friend and former NRA colleague Stephen Czarnik invited him to live on his farm in West Virginia, where they raised chickens.
Richardson’s mental health was deteriorating, according to Czarnik. He was drinking alone. In October 2020, Czarnik recalled, another friend from the NRA was visiting the farm. He and Czarnik were hanging out in an upstairs room when Richardson walked in. Richardson embraced them and said, “God is good,” and that he loved them. “Then he ran downstairs,” Czarnik said, “and we knew something was wrong.” Czarnik and his friend followed Richardson, who dashed to the front porch. Before anyone could reach him, he shot himself with a handgun.
When Richardson died, it had been almost 30 years since the NRA had publicly disputed Kellermann’s research. Billy McLaughlin, an NRA spokesman, said in an email that the organization “observes that according to many criminologists and researchers” Kellermann’s work is “interpreted as junk science.” He added that the NRA does not comment on its employees, and that there is “nothing more important to us” than the staff’s “safety and security.”
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In 2013, Owens was out of work in IT, but his profile as a writer had risen. He was done with Confederate Yankee, and was now a regular contributor to the long-standing conservative site PJ Media, where he focused almost singularly on firearms. He was especially fixated on the trial of George Zimmerman, who, a year earlier, had fatally shot Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager who was unarmed. Owens seemed to identify with Zimmerman. Martin, he wrote, “was a very troubled young man who believed very strongly in impulsively trying to get whatever he wanted, and did not care if others were hurt if it made him feel better”; he found Zimmerman, meanwhile, to be a “generally honorable man with idealistic goals about the role good men should play in protecting their communities.”
Owens and Christine now had two children. Maya was in her early teens; their second, Kate, was 6. Owens took the family on trips to North Carolina’s western mountains, and cooked them pork butt on the grill. They attended church every Sunday. Owens always had a handgun on him, though the only real hazard in their neighborhood was the occasional car accident on a busy road called Judd Parkway. When that happened, Christine said, Owens was the first to rush outside and offer help.
On the night of the Zimmerman verdict, he tweeted to his thousands of followers, “Trayvon Martin tried to kill George Zimmerman. He just failed at that as he did everything else in his life.” Stephen Gutowski, a journalist who reports on firearms and was close with Owens, told me, “When he felt like a media narrative was developing that was unfair to gun owners, he would go and push back as hard as he could.”
Christine recalled that Owens half-jokingly turned to Twitter for help finding full-time work, suggesting that there must be an organization out there that could use his skills. Katie Pavlich, a conservative commentator and friend, saw his tweet. She worked for a conservative media company called Townhall, which had recently launched BearingArms.com. It needed someone to run the site, and Pavlich thought Owens would be a good fit. He was soon hired at a salary of $80,000 a year. “This was like a dream job to him,” Christine told me.
The self-defense gun market is defined by contradiction. In a 2015 study conducted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF ) — the trade group for the firearms industry — white respondents had the highest level of gun ownership, and were the ones most likely to claim that they carried weapons out of a “duty to protect” family and worries over “random acts of violence.” But at the same time, they were also less likely than Black and Hispanic respondents to report that they actually live in dangerous neighborhoods.
These results aligned with other research. In his book “Dying of Whiteness,” Jonathan Metzl, a psychiatrist and sociologist, looks closely at gun owners in a Missouri county that is 85 percent white. He told me that many of his subjects “imagined a threat around every corner.” He added, “One guy was talking about ‘gangbangers’ who would come through his window and steal his television.” Another man “imagined that he could be carjacked at any moment.” Angela Stroud, a sociologist whose book, “Good Guys With Guns,” explores similar themes, writes that the men she interviewed were fixated on imagined violence. “Though they may never be in a position to carry out heroic fantasies of masculine bravery,” she wrote in her book, they were “positioning themselves as brave leaders of their families.”
At the NRA’s 2015 annual meeting, in Nashville, Tennessee, Dave Grossman held a seminar called “Sheepdogs! The Bulletproof Mind for the Armed Citizen.” “Of all the violence we could engage in, violence to protect our families, to protect our children, is what we’re wired to do,” he told attendees. “You are the Special Forces. We are at war.”
Nearly two-thirds of the roughly 40,000 annual gun deaths that were occurring at the time were suicides. The statistics were bleak enough that even the NSSF felt compelled to publicly address them. In August of 2016, the group launched a high-profile campaign aimed at combatting gun suicide, in partnership with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), the largest private suicide-prevention organization in the country.
On its face, the partnership seemed promising. Robert Gebbia, the CEO of AFSP, said in a press release that his organization saw “this relationship as critical to reaching the firearms community.” That same press release quoted Stephen Sanetti, then the NSSF president, as saying that the effort placed the “firearms industry” at the “forefront of helping to prevent these deaths.”
But the written agreement between the two groups, which has never been reported on before, has a “conflicts of interest” provision that might have caused some concern had it been viewed by the public. The opening sentence promises that “the parties shall act in the best interests of the other” and “shall disclose any real or potential conflicts that are adverse to the interests of the other as they arise.” Such conflicts included “positions advanced by one party [that] do not align with the positions advanced by the other and the issuance of any public statement by a party that harms or could harm the other.” Given that one of the NSSF’s primary goals is to maximize profit for the firearms industry, such a policy would seemingly present a major limitation for the partnership. Stephanie Rogers, the chief communications officer at AFSP, told me in an email that the language merely calls for transparency, and “does not inhibit the action of either party.”
By 2018, the NSSF had a landing page for its partnership with the AFSP. Most suicide deaths involved a firearm, the program’s materials emphasized, because the presence of a gun almost guarantees that the attempt will be successful. In an introductory video, Sanetti described the deadly urge as often “spur-of-the-moment.” He ended his monologue with a simple statement of fact: “Temporarily preventing a person in crisis from accessing a firearm can help save lives.”
Sanetti was nodding toward a concept known as “means restriction.” If people are jumping off bridges, for instance, then the government builds barriers to prevent those deaths. Such solutions tend to work when they are externally imposed. But the NSSF and AFSP would not jointly recommend anything that could be construed as “gun control.” Instead, an AFSP spokesperson explained in an email, the two groups were “providing practical and accessible suicide prevention education.” The website suggested separately storing ammunition and firearms, which should be kept in safes or lockboxes. If more drastic measures were deemed necessary, the organizations said that “temporary off-site storage” was an option to “consider.” They were advocating for a do-it-yourself approach to a deeply complicated societal problem.
For the NSSF, it was still bold to acknowledge that separating someone from their firearm might be the key to survival. But a 2018 study funded by the group illustrates why it might have been – and likely remains – difficult for the industry to push for more forceful solutions. The NSSF surveyed gun owners who often carried concealed firearms, 81 percent of whom disclosed that they always kept a loaded one close by. “The more frequently a person carries a firearm,” the study found, “the more they spend on handguns, ammunition and carry equipment, and accessories.” On average, respondents owned more than 10 guns. Roughly 80 percent of the participants were white men.
Jenn Jacques began working with Bob Owens in 2015. When she contacted him to ask if there might be a job for her at Bearing Arms, she was running a website for female gun owners. She’d been reading Owens’s writing for years; she admired his boldness and intelligence. Owens was working seven days a week, starting at 6 in the morning and often ending at 10 at night. Bearing Arms brought Jacques on as a volunteer at first, but after a year made her a full-time, salaried employee.
Owens and Jacques were each required to write seven posts a day if they wanted weekends off. Owens usually sat on a recliner in the living room, facing a window with a view of the woods. “We used to call him Barcalounger Bob,” Jacques told me.
By 2016, Owens had become a central voice in the gun-rights movement, regularly giving interviews on NRATV, which was then one of the gun group’s media platforms. “Bob was under so much pressure,” Christine told me. “The company always wanted more out of him. Always more, more, more.” She took care of the children while Owens was consumed by work. “When I think about it now,” Christine said, “I think Bob liked to look out the window because nature soothed him, calmed his nerves.”
Toward the end of 2016, the parent company of Bearing Arms asked Owens if he would like to write a book — something akin to a gun guide — that the company would publish through Regnery, its publishing house. He wasn’t offered a large sum, but the family needed extra money. Owens also held out hope that the book might lead to an opportunity to write a novel, so he agreed.
In January, Jacques and Owens attended the 2017 SHOT Show, the NSSF’s annual trade event in Las Vegas. Christine Moutier, the AFSP’s chief medical officer, was there to discuss her group’s partnership with the NSSF. She sat for an interview with Jacques, which Owens filmed. It was an intimate, polite chat. Jacques, in a neat striped shirt, sat close to Moutier. “What are a few of the signs of suicide?” Jacques asked. “Even those people who are presenting the strong happy face will show signs without intending to,” Moutier said. They might self-isolate, or become “more short-fused.” In the brief conversation, Moutier did not cover means restriction or the potential danger of keeping guns in the house.
Back home, as Owens worked on his manuscript, Christine noticed that he seemed newly moody. He started smoking, a habit he had dropped years earlier. He would get worked up about tiny things in a way he never had, snapping at Christine if she forgot something at the store. When he was frustrated, he’d say, “I have to go for a walk.” “He was always walking because everything was just irritating him,” Christine said.
Christine tried to reassure her husband that life would get easier when his book was finished. “I just kept saying, ‘You’re almost done. When this is done, you can relax.’” He was experiencing symptoms of depression. Christine asked him to see a therapist, and he did. He tried medication for about a week, but stopped taking it because he thought it made him feel worse.
To his readers, though, Owens was the same man he’d always been. That spring, he ran stories with headlines such as “Another Good Guy With a Gun: Detroit Man Shoots Sister’s Violent Stalker,” and “Armed Good Samaritan Runs Off Terrified Robber.” The NRA’s annual meeting — the one both Jacques and Owens attended in Atlanta — was in late April. Owens tweeted a photo of a revolver and ammo. “This is the Ruger LCR I’m carrying at #NRAAM2017,” he wrote.
On Friday, May 5, after Owens had returned from the event, Christine and Kate left for a Girl Scouts camping trip. Owens was “acting funny,” Christine said. “He was constantly texting to see how we were doing, and would get worried if I didn’t respond right away. I kept telling him, ‘We’re fine, we’re fine, but we’re out doing things.’” She noted that Owens was effusive, almost manic. “He was saying that I was the best wife, the best woman, and that when we got home, he would be the husband I deserve and things would change. He promised to cook us a steak dinner.”
On Sunday, Owens tweeted a meme featuring a heavily tattooed man and a little boy. Each had a speech bubble coming from his mouth. “Dad,” the boy says, “when I become a man, I want to be a Liberal.” The father responds, “Well, you have to choose one son. You can’t be both.” Owens added: “I admit it. I laughed.” That evening, after Christine and Kate returned, Owens grilled steak for the family. Everybody ate, and then he and Christine stayed up late into the night, discussing a possible winter trip to Las Vegas. His book was due in three days.
The following morning, Owens placed his cigarettes, Altoids, pepper spray, knife, phone, and wallet in his pockets. The holster clipped to his belt held the same revolver he’d carried a week earlier at the NRA’s annual meeting. He walked Kate to the school-bus stop and watched her board.
Owens had a few hours before he had to drive to Wake Tech Community College to pick up his older daughter, Maya, who was taking a final. So he kept walking. As he made his way down Sequoia Ridge Drive, he caught the attention of a neighbor, a woman who didn’t know him but was struck by the way he was hanging his head. That man, she thought, seems remarkably sad.
Eventually, Owens arrived at the intersection of Sequoia and South Judd Parkway, not far from his house. Cars whipped by rows of well-kept shrubs. Owens pulled out his phone to post a message on Facebook. “In the end, it turns out that I’m not strong,” he wrote. “I’m a coward, and a selfish son of a bitch. I’m sorry.”
When her father didn’t show up to get her, Maya tried calling. She couldn’t reach him, so she contacted her mom and explained that she was stranded. It was unlike Owens not to show.
A 39-year-old Iraq War veteran drove by the corner of Sequoia and Judd. He noticed Owens lying in the grass, bleeding from a gunshot wound in the head. The vet parked and ran over. He felt for a pulse that was not there, then dialed 911.
Police told Christine what had happened. She was too distraught to drive home, so two detectives, along with Christine’s father, went to meet her. News of Owens’s death began to trickle out that evening. Jacques wrote on Facebook: “Life as I knew it ended this morning. It was a privilege and an honor to call Bob Owens my friend, co-editor and work hubby, so please know that I will do everything in my power to protect him in death as I did in life.” The next day, Jacques published a short post about Owens on Bearing Arms, but she did not disclose how he died. She wrote, “In the end, all that matters is [he] will be sorely missed, and the truth is that we will never know what truly happened.”
Owens’s employers at Townhall Media, which owns Bearing Arms and did not respond to a request for comment, sent Christine a condolence email and flowers. They also set up a GoFundMe page announcing that they’d “lost a friend,” soliciting donations from the public to help support Owens’s family. “We’d like to show our love and appreciation for Bob,” the page said. “Groceries, bills and college dreams will be a struggle — but we can help.” The campaign raised more than $36,000 from 608 donors. No Townhall executives attended her husband’s funeral. (On behalf of Owens’s mother and siblings, his father declined to comment for this article, citing his support for the Second Amendment.)
Jacques does not think the gun industry bears any responsibility for Owens’s death, or for gun suicide in general. “It really is a shame people may not be as comfortable reaching out for help because we’re attacked by the gun-control movement,” Jacques told me. Gutowski, the journalist who was friends with Owens, said that many gun owners are afraid to tell doctors about their mental-health struggles, because they worry someone will take their weapons away.
It’s been seven years since the AFSP and the NSSF announced their partnership, and more Americans are dying of gun suicide than ever before. The coronavirus pandemic and the summer 2020 protests after the murder of George Floyd spurred people to buy firearms in record-breaking numbers. In 2022, according to CDC data, there were 27,000 gun suicides, the highest number ever recorded in the United States. According to an analysis by Cassandra Crifasi, an associate professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins University, white men still make up nearly 80 percent of these deaths. “The risk typically starts to peak when they reach their mid-40s,” she said. Owens was 46 when he died.
In 2021, the NSSF, which declined to provide a comment for this story, hosted a webinar on suicide prevention for gun-range operators and firearms dealers. Two gregarious consultants — John “JB” Bocker and John “JC” Clark — ran the presentation. They ticked through the signs of depression, and gave some guidance on how to predict when a customer might be suicidal.
Working a Suicide Hotline When the Caller Says ‘Gun’
“How does your most common customer come into the store?” Clark asked. “They’re excited, right? They’re going to buy their first firearm, or they’re going to buy a new firearm, or something new to the market. Or they want to receive training. They’re excited about it. They have a certain amount of energy. So when you compare the atypical customer to these different scenarios, then you may have a situation where somebody is in crisis, where somebody needs help.” He continued, “Moving, speaking slowly, restlessness — all of these things could be signs you need to be aware of.”
“And, JC, we can’t forget understanding basic body language,” Bocker chimed in. “It may not always be verbal. It may not always be their direct approach about buying or not buying a gun. It just might be their quietness; it might be the way they’re looking or not looking.” He added, “Everything about their body language can be a telltale hint to them wanting to do something they shouldn’t do with a firearm.”
Bocker and Clark declined to be interviewed for this story. At my request, Amanda Spray, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, reviewed a recording of their presentation. “Untrained individuals would find it very difficult to predict who is experiencing suicidal ideation,” she told me. She called the approach, with its inherent conflicts between sales and public health, “extremely unrealistic.”
Not long ago, I visited Christine in North Carolina and spent a day in the Owenses’ old neighborhood in Fuquay-Varina. The homes and lawns were meticulously maintained. Driveways had basketball hoops, and rocking chairs sat on porches. There were decorative signs with welcoming messages. One said Home on the Range. Another said Sit Relax Gossip.
Other than his Facebook post, Bob had not left a note. At the time of his death, Christine felt as though she were in a kind of limbo. She was desperate for clues and answers. She could not get into his phone, and Bob’s therapist could not divulge any details about her husband’s treatment. “Why didn’t he come to me?” Christine wondered. “We always worked it out, always worked through things. We worked on them together, always.”
One day, soon after Bob died, Christine opened his work bag and found a notebook. In it was a list: “Things That Are Stressing Me Out.” It stretched on for seven or eight pages, mentioning death threats, which were news to Christine, as were Bob’s concerns about his aging parents. A lot of it was familiar, just laid out at length. “So much about his job,” Christine described to me, “the book, things that were going on with the kids, being the provider.” She realized she hadn’t known the extent of his stress. “Bob really felt like he was stuck and didn’t know where to go,” she said.
Christine doesn’t view Bob’s suicide as a cautionary tale about gun ownership, and she does not think anyone else should view it that way, either. She herself carries a firearm when she goes out of town, in case her car breaks down. One day, while we were eating lunch at a Japanese restaurant, I asked if she was aware that gun suicide, according to the data, seemed to pose a unique threat to men like her husband. She set down her fork and folded her arms. “I know,” Christine said, but she believes the real problem is that so many boys are raised to equate vulnerability with weakness. “I don’t think it’s about guns. I think it’s about men and their feelings — they’re still bad at dealing with them.”
Bob, she said, wanted to take care of the people around him. Like many men, she went on, “he had to be tough.” She thinks her husband would have found a way to kill himself no matter what. “Besides,” she said, “how would I have kept Bob away from guns?”