Banner image: CU Boulder researcher Sabrina Arredondo Mattson, left, and Jacquelyn Clark, owner of Bristlecone Shooting,in Lakewood, hold up suicide prevention materials provided by the Gun Shop Project. Glenn Asakawa/CU Boulder
Step inside the bustling Bristlecone Shooting, Training and Retail Center—past a marquis announcing a concealed carry class and the sign-up area for the indoor range—and a bright orange poster catches your eye: “Gun owners, you can help! Putting time and distance between a suicidal person and a gun can help keep them safe.”
Near the cash register rests a stack of flyers highlighting the “11th Commandment” of responsible gun ownership: “Consider temporary off-site storage if a family member may be suicidal.”
Atop a locked glass ammunition case rest some wallet cards listing suicide hotlines.
“I am uber conscious of the fact that we deal in something that can be dangerous in the wrong hands,” says Jacquelyn Clark, owner of the Lakewood store. “It’s important that we provide resources for people and let our staff know it’s OK to have what could be difficult conversations.”
Clark is among about 275 Colorado gun retailers who participate in the Gun Shop Project, a public-private effort to enlist firearm advocates in the fight against suicide by gun. Launched by a New Hampshire retailer in 2009 after three of his customers took their own lives in one tragic week, the project has spread to 21 states, with public health agencies providing educational materials and support for thousands of gun shops. At a time when both suicide rates and gun ownership are rising, advocates say such efforts are more critical than ever.
But how well are they working? Are there things that could be done to make them work better? A new University of Colorado Boulder study seeks to find out.
“If we can really reduce suicides through this program, it’s important to document that, and understand what’s working and what’s not,” says Sabrina Arredondo Mattson, senior research associate at the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence (CSPV), which is part of the Institute of Behavioral Science at CU Boulder.
New $2 million CDC grant raising understanding
With a $2 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Arredondo Mattson and her team will spend the next three years documenting the role gun shops can play in suicide prevention.
Over the last two decades, she notes, suicide rates in the United States have risen 35%, with white, male, working-age and older adults at greatest risk.
Colorado ranks seventh highest nationally for its suicide rates, with nearly 1,300 people taking their own lives annually.
And gun ownership and suicide risk are inextricably linked. In fact, having a gun in the home triples the odds of death by suicide, not because a gun prompts thoughts of it or because people with guns are more likely to attempt it, but because firearms are more lethal than other means.
Nationwide, half of all suicide deaths are via firearm. In Colorado, there are about four firearm suicides for every firearm homicide.
And the lingering COVID-19 pandemic has raised concerns.
“Firearm and ammunition sales have gone up, and mental health needs are high,” Arredondo Mattson says. “These factors combined are likely to increase the risk of suicide.”
Research shows that if a person in crisis can be kept away from a gun temporarily, tragedy can be averted. But only recently have suicide prevention advocates looked to gun sellers as an integral part of the solution.
“The firearm community has a very strong bond,” says Arredondo Mattson. “People don’t just go in to shop. They go in to hang out with the owners and managers and there is a lot of trust there.”
Educational materials snapped off shelves
Clark, who was one of the first in the state to join the Gun Shop Project in 2014, says she knows people are picking up the materials because she has to replenish them often. And their mere existence lets her employees know it’s OK to bring up a subject some might otherwise view as taboo.
Materials encourage people to offer to store a friend’s gun temporarily if they, or a family member in the house, is experiencing an emotional crisis. Some shooting clubs, police departments or gun shops will also store them.
Clark’s store also has a policy that prohibits first-time customers from renting a firearm for use in the indoor range.
On the rare occasion that someone seemingly emotionally distressed does come in to the store, “having all these resources at our fingertips during conversations can be really helpful,” Clark says.
For the study, Arredondo Mattson will team up with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the Colorado Firearm Safety Coalition and the Firearm Safety Advisory Board to survey and interview project participants in-depth.
Then, she’ll take the research national, quantifying whether counties with Gun Shop Projects experience less suicide than those without.
With more data could ultimately come greater support by public health agencies, a more refined program that works the best it can, and heightened buy-in from retailers who might otherwise be skeptical, says Arredondo Mattson.
“I want the firearm community to know that we researchers are not against guns. We are just trying to help solve an important problem and we need their help.”
Other members of the research team include CSPV Director Beverly Kingston, CSPV research associate Erin Kelly, Dr. Emmy Betz, an associate professor of emergency medicine at the CU School of Medicine, and Dr. Eric Sigel, a professor of pediatrics at the CU School of Medicine.