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Gunmakers Finally Face Their Suicide Problem

Almost half of Americans who kill themselves do so with guns. Firearm makers are taking a first step toward prevention.

In what some see as an unlikely move, the gun industry is preparing to get behind a suicide-prevention push. The unlikely part, just to be clear, is that the industry makes products that enable almost half of all suicides in America.

Steve Sanetti, the president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the industry’s trade group, sees nothing at all surprising about gun and ammunition makers trying to make a dent in the grim count. “We’ve been looking at this issue for years,” he said in a recent interview at NSSF headquarters in Newtown, Conn. (the same Newtown where elementary school students were massacred in 2012). “Firearm suicides are two-thirds of the total of all gun deaths,” Sanetti added, and thus a natural focus for responsible gunmakers and owners.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there are about 11,000 firearm homicides a year and some 21,000 firearm suicides. In terms of sheer mortality, gun suicide is a bigger problem than gun homicide. 

The NSSF, Sanetti said, struggled to find an expert group with which to collaborate on this sensitive topic: “The problem was that, like much of the medical community, suicide-prevention organizations were anti-gun by nature, and their mantra was: ‘The only safe house is a home without a gun.’ That's obviously not something we could support.”

It’s undeniable that a gun-free home is less likely to be the site of a gun suicide. But gun owners, and the companies that make and sell guns, believe that the benefits of firearm possession, as they see them (security against intrusion, sport and recreation, exercise of Second Amendment rights) necessitate some downside risk. The question for those people is how to minimize the risk.

Last year, the NSSF began talking to the New York-based American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “They’re leaving politics at the door. We’re leaving politics at the door,” Sanetti said. The AFSP’s chief executive, Robert Gebbia, said his group welcomed conversation with the gun industry as a way to reach firearm owners who might be vulnerable to suicide. “It’s a politically charged issue—the Second Amendment—but that’s not our issue,” Gebbia explained. “To fulfill our mission we need to work with people in that world.”

This fall, AFSP chapters in four states—Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, and New Mexico—will launch pilot projects under which they will deliver suicide-prevention literature to gun retailers, firearm ranges, and other places where gun owners gather. The program will also include the dissemination of hotline numbers that salespeople can call if they see warning signs, Sanetti said. 

Separately, the NSSF has been conferring with the Department of Veterans Affairs about setting up programs “to address the shocking number of suicides among returning veterans, especially younger males coming back from multiple deployments from the wars” in the Middle East, Sanetti said. Those negotiations have moved slowly. Only now are the NSSF and VA nearing an announcement of a partnership to establish pilot prevention programs at military bases and other places that soldiers and veterans congregate, according to Sanetti. A VA spokesperson promised to provide comment but failed to do so. Gun control advocates had plenty to say, though, expressing skepticism about the NSSF’s plans. 

“While any effort to educate about suicide is deserving of merit, NSSF misses the mark when it comes to recognizing the risk factors that go along with keeping a gun in the home,” Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said via e-mail. “The gun lobby has spent years building an atmosphere of hysteria and fear, creating a terrifying world where their product is the only hope for safety—and to deadly effect. The myth upon which they have built their business, that a gun somehow makes you safer, is literally costing lives.”

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