This edition of The Weekly Briefing focuses on suicide. If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or depression, help is available — you can find resources for support in this guide.
The last time Jenn Jacques saw Bob Owens in person, Mike Spies writes in his latest story, was a “special night.” It was springtime in Atlanta, with weather good enough to spend hours drinking and talking at an outdoor bar. The friends and co-workers at the pro-gun website Bearing Arms were in a reflective mood: They discussed family and aging, and the conversation eventually drifted to suicide. Owens said that he “could never do it.” The next month, in May 2017, Owens was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The suicide of one of the most prominent gun bloggers in the country was briefly noted by the media, but no one had ever gotten the full story. A few years ago, Spies decided that looking closely at Owens’s life and death might help us understand the much-discussed but poorly understood epidemic of firearm suicide, which, according recent estimates by the CDC, reached an all-time high in 2022.
Spies began digging into this story in earnest more than a year ago. First, he persuaded some lawyers in North Carolina to petition the local judge for Owens’s death records. Then he set about finding out what the gun industry itself knows about its customers and their habits, obtaining never-before-public marketing research by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade group for the firearms industry.
The NSSF had teamed up with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to launch the largest suicide prevention campaign in the country in 2016. “On its face, the partnership seemed promising,” Spies writes in his story, published in partnership with The Atlantic. “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.” One of the primary goals of the NSSF is to ensure that the gun industry remains profitable. According to the conflicts-of-interest provision, the suicide prevention foundation could not advance any position that jeopardized its partner.
As Spies sorted through this material and an abundance of public health research on suicide, he also spent time talking with Owens’s widow, Christine, and some of Owens’s closest friends. After he heard whispers of suicides by employees of the National Rifle Association, he collected the stories of one, then two, then three, and eventually four NRA staffers who ended their lives with firearms over a dozen years. The suicides had never been publicly acknowledged by the NRA or reported by the media. All the while, of course, the NRA continued to sow doubts about the research that has, over 30 years, established that people who live in a home with a firearm are at higher risk of dying by suicide.
I hope you’ll make time for this intense and humanizing story, which represents the best of investigative reporting and sensitive narrative storytelling.
— Tali Woodward, editor in chief
From Our Team
A roundup of stories from The Trace.
For decades, white men have believed they need guns to keep their families safe. Instead, they keep turning their weapons on themselves.
Read more →
The city is poised to end 2023 with fewer than 500 fatalities — but the gunshots, sirens, and recurring cycles of mourning persist.
Read more →
What to Know This Week
When body-worn cameras were introduced a decade ago, it seemed like they would be a revolutionary tool to hold police accountable for misconduct. But without deeper changes, the measure was bound to fall short: Departments were left with control over recording policies, and today routinely refuse to release footage, even when officers kill. [ProPublica and The New York Times]
In California, where and how firearms dealers are allowed to operate is usually dictated at the municipal level, meaning that the rules can be highly variable between areas. That’s evident in the stories of two gun shops, one on its way to closure and another that never opened. [Los Angeles Times]
The man accused of killing six people in a gun rampage across Texas last week had been detained in Austin for mental health reasons in 2018, charged with assaulting three family members in 2022, and wanted on three active warrants for family violence at the time of the spree. He was still able to purchase a gun. [The Texas Newsroom]
International smugglers are exploiting a gap in U.S. regulations to legally purchase components to build untraceable assault rifles. In Latin America, criminal gangs are now often better armed than the authorities patrolling them. [Bloomberg]
The ACLU agreed to represent the National Rifle Association in a free speech lawsuit over what the gun group alleges were a New York official’s efforts to blacklist it. The ACLU’s legal director acknowledged that the decision would likely be met with criticism. [The New York Times]
In 2017, executives at the chat platform Discord banned prominent far-right groups and promised to clean up the service. But far-right extremists — including the white supremacist who carried out a mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, last year — continued to call it home. Why are racist and antisemitic communities still flourishing there? [The Washington Post]
Racine, Wisconsin, is a factory town that’s perhaps best known for its extravagant prom celebrations. But in 2018, ATF investigators allege, the Great Lakes suburb became a source of military-grade weapons for a Mexican cartel — and just one part of a large network that exploited permissive state and federal gun laws to traffic powerful firearms to a gang across the border. [Reuters]
Oklahoma is home to the nation’s first and only “anti-red flag” law, which bans the state and local governments from enacting measures to seize weapons from people deemed a risk to themselves or others, or accepting any grants to support such legislation. Advocates for domestic violence victims say the state’s permissive gun regulations put victims at risk — including people like Tara Currin, whose protective order didn’t stop her ex-boyfriend from shooting her eight times last year. [The Frontier]
Vice President Kamala Harris unveiled two new executive actions and announced the “Safer States Initiative,” an outline of the steps that states can take to counter gun violence, at a gathering of state lawmakers at the White House. [POLITICO]
Cities and towns across the country have turned to the gun disposal industry to destroy firearms used in crimes, surrendered in buybacks, or replaced by police force upgrades. But some companies recycle the weapons into civilian hands, melting down just one part of a gun and reselling the rest. [The New York Times]
Douglas G. Adkins, 67, was a pool shark and a ladies’ man, his son told the Canton Repository. He was outgoing, a salesman by trade — and incredibly giving, the kind of guy who opened his doors “to anyone that needed a place to stay.” Adkins was shot and killed at his home in Canton, Ohio, earlier this month. He had a habit of brightening people’s days, going out of his way to make an unhappy person smile. Adkins liked working on cars, and was quick to share his knowledge of their inner workings to anyone curious. He was fierce, respectful, and kind, his children said, loved by many, including his three small dogs. “He genuinely had a kind heart,” said his son. “He cared so much in a world that is selfish and self-centered, and he was so selfless and giving.”
“More children in Florida are getting their hands on guns. And even if they don’t intend to use those weapons for violence, it can have serious consequences for them and their communities. Health News Florida’s Stephanie Colombini has been exploring the way guns can endanger kids’ lives and futures.” [WUSF]
“I wasn’t scared of Robert. I was afraid of him when he had a gun.”
— Tara Currin, on her relationship with the ex-boyfriend who shot her eight times in 2022, to The Frontier