State, Doctors Get Welcome Allies In Suicide Prevention Fight: Gun Shops

Photo: Jacquelyn Clark, a co-owner of Bristlecone Shooting (Staff)
Jacquelyn Clark is a co-owner of Bristlecone Shooting, Training and Retail Center in Lakewood. She's holding a list of gun safety rules, that include a newly added 11th Commandment, to "consider off-site storage if a family member may be suicidal."

At the Bristlecone Shooting, Training and Retail Center in Lakewood, a couple dozen people, mostly men, gather in one of its firing ranges.

"Ready! Stand by! Fire!" yells an instructor, as a pair of people begin firing. Everyone seems to be having a good time.

But on a wall in the shop’s showroom, a new poster highlights a growing concern in this community. It reads: Gun Owners Can Help! Under a photo of a lone elk in the mountains, the poster lists signs someone may be suicidal and a phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK.

Jacquelyn Clark, co-owner of Bristlecone, said there’s now an 11th Commandment on gun safety rules: Consider off-site storage -- family, friends, some shooting clubs, police departments or gun shops -- if a family member may be suicidal.

At the gun shop, a heightened awareness of the link between guns and suicides
Shooters aim at bowling pins on Monday Night Bowling Pin Shoot in the firing range at Bristlecone Shooting, Training and Retail Center in Lakewood.

“The gun community itself is more at risk than the regular community," Clark said. "Not because gun owners tend to have more mental health issues, but just because they have more access."

Suicide is the seventh-leading cause of death in Colorado and more than half of those suicides involved a firearm. Now, guns shops like Clark’s have joined a new initiative, the Colorado Gun Shop Project. The aim is to get the suicide prevention message out to gun owners.

The coalition behind the project includes some odd bedfellows -- gun shop owners, doctors, and public health officials.

Jarrod Hindman, violence and suicide prevention section manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, said it's best local gun advocates take the lead.

“This is their project, we’re just helping to facilitate the process," said Hindman.

Some 527 Coloradans took their own lives with a firearm in 2014, a statistic Hindman said is daunting. But he said a collaborative approach between gun owners and public health advocates seems like a good way to go.

“This is a very contentious topic," Hindman said. "[But] we’ve found a way to find middle ground in a topic where we didn’t think there was a middle ground."

The Colorado Gun Shop Project formally started in the summer of 2014. It was modeled after a similar project started by the New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition.

Dr. Michael Victoroff is a gun owner and public health advocate
Dr. Michal Victoroff is a public health advocate and gun owner. In two decades as a family medicine physician he treated many suicidal patients.

Now at least 17 guns shops -- 14 on the Western Slope and three in the Denver metro area -- have suicide prevention information on display, according to the state health department.

“We actually have a chance here to listen and teach to each other," said Dr. Michael Victoroff, a clinical professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

He lives in the middle ground as a public health advocate and a gun owner. In his 20 years of practicing family medicine, he said he treated many suicidal patients. Most did not kill themselves, but the vast majority of those who did used a gun. Suicide, he said, can be hard to predict.

“For the most, part a person who is going to commit suicide does it impulsively," said Victoroff. “[Guns are] so effective as a way of killing yourself that it really deserves a special kind of consideration."

He said the aim of the project is to help gun owners think things through, in their moment of despair.

“What I’m hoping is that if I ever got into a mess that gloomy, I would remember the poster at the store, I’d remember my training," said Victoroff. "I would remember that someone once said to me that pointing this thing at yourself is the worst misuse of a gun that could ever be made.”

Dr. Emmy Betz is an emergency physician and gun safety advocate
Dr. Emmy Betz works in the Emergency Department at the University of Colorado Hospital, and also is part of the Colorado Gun Shop Project.

At the University of Colorado Hospital, Dr. Emmy Betz said she saw three suicidal patients on a recent night. Each had taken drugs -- and all survived.

“With firearms, typically there’s not that second chance," said Betz, who is an associate professor of emergency m at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Betz said she now asks suicidal patients and their families about safe gun storage, something she didn’t do before.

“I have, I think, a responsibility to talk about these things with people at risk," Betz said. "But ideally that conversation would be happening among firearms owners before someone is really at risk."

The Centers for Disease Control just released new numbers in a report this month that show the nation's suicide rate rose 24 percent over the last 15 years. Fifty-five percent those suicides involved firearms.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of suicide deaths in Colorado that involved a gun in 2014. It was 527, not more than 1,000. The current version is correct.