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How Suicide-Prevention Experts Pitched a Gun Show

More than half of all suicides in the United States are carried out with a firearm, and gun suicides make up the majority of fatal shootings.
(AP Photo/Lisa Marie Pane)

A version of this article originally appeared on the Trace. New offerings abounded at the 2017 SHOT Show, the industry's largest annual trade event, hosted last week by the National Shooting Sports Foundation in Las Vegas. But among the rows of retailers hawking the latest models of firearms and tactical gear, there was one surprising addition to this year's convention: a delegation from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). They had come to promote a unique partnership with the show's organizers on a nationwide suicide-prevention program with the ambitious goal of stopping nearly 10,000 deaths in the next decade.


"It's really important that this kind of message is given from the gun-owning community, to the gun-owning community," said Cathy Barber, a suicide-prevention expert at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who called the venue for the presentation "incredibly significant."

The collaboration is between AFSP, the country's largest suicide-prevention organization, and the NSSF, which represents thousands of gun retailers and manufacturers across the country. The partnership, which is an arm of the AFSP's Project 2025, is intended to educate gun-shop owners and shooting-range operators on the risk factors and warning signs of suicide, and to provide guidance for family members who wish to restrict access to firearms from a loved one in crisis.

As the Trace has reported, the organizations have been testing the program in four states—Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, and New Mexico—since August. Appearing together on the SHOT show stage, NSSF president Steve Sanetti and AFSP chief medical officer Christine Moutier announced the rollout of collaboration in all 50 states.

"Suicide is one area that we have not touched on in the past," Sanetti said at the launch event.

More than half of all suicides in the United States are carried out with a firearm, and gun suicides make up the majority of fatal shootings. In 2014, nearly two-thirds of all gun-related deaths in the country were by the shooter's own hand, according to an analysis by  the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Historically, gun-rights groups have distanced themselves from suicide-prevention efforts, reluctant to acknowledge that the presence of guns in a home increases mortality risks. Some gun rights advocates take it further, arguing that suicides should not even be counted alongside other types of gun deaths. Their thinking, as outlined by National Review's Charles C. W. Cooke, is that "suicides and murders are not morally comparable."

Suicide-prevention programs often call for removing access to the means of self-harm, and are seen by some gun rights activists as a cover for eventual government confiscation of firearms. Moutier, the AFSP's representative, sensed skepticism from the crowd at the SHOT Show.

"They wanted to know, is this really not about removing firearms from the home?" she said. "So we were able to address and clarify exactly what this initiative is and what it isn't."

To head off concerns about the project, officials from both organizations worked carefully on the language included in the program's educational materials. A brochure stresses that restricting a person's access to firearms while he or she is at risk for self-harm is a temporary measure, and put an emphasis on storing weapons securely.

"This initiative is starting with the reality that guns are in one-third of American homes so, given that, what can they do to keep someone safe?" Moutier said. "We're simply saying have that caring conversation that should include offering to help them secure their firearms temporarily if they're having this crisis."


Check out the VICE News short doc on gun violence in Chicago in 2016, the worst year for homicide in the city in decades.

Tailoring the collaboration's message for gun owners has been crucial, according to Barber, the Harvard researcher.

"When you use a phrase like 'removing a gun from the home,' that's very different than talking about choosing to store your guns away from home while somebody is at risk," she says. "Removal sounds somehow like, 'Wait a minute: Is this an authority making a decision?' If it's cast in the framework of people making decisions that are in their interest, and in their family's interest, about where they're storing their guns, then it's easier to have that conversation."

Local chapters of AFSP are set to distribute brochures with the NSSF's logo to gun-shop owners and shooting-range operators. The organizers hope the materials will be distributed to customers and training-course enrollees. At the news conference, Sanetti encouraged gun retailers to be proactive in acquiring the materials.

"The messages couldn't be perceived in any way as anti-firearm," he said. "And we know that a lot of people in the medical community, unfortunately, sincerely believe the only safe home is a home without a gun."

Overall, Moutier said she was pleased with the reception at SHOT Show.

"I thought maybe we would have to prove ourselves," she said. "But it wasn't like that. The moment that we started saying that we share an interest, they were incredibly welcoming of us."


A key test for the project as it expands nationwide will be whether it can sustain the cooperation from gun stores that it found during its pilot phase. One of the several dozen gun retailers who participated in the program's first wave asked for a thousand brochures, rather than the 50 he was initially offered. He said he wanted to put one in every customer's bag. In New Mexico, in addition to distributing materials to gun shops and shooting ranges, AFSP members set up their own table at a gun show. Attendees reacted with a "mixture of surprise and curiosity," Moutier said. "Lots of people who have experienced a suicide loss would come up to the table and say, 'Thank you, I'm so glad that you're here.'"

Still, some gun retailers remain reluctant to step into a role they think should be left to mental health professionals. Moutier said she is confident that the holdouts can be won over.

"Now that we've been living in this space for a while," she said, "it has become so much more clear that there is a common ground."

A version of this article was originally published by the Trace, a nonprofit news organization covering guns in America. Sign up for the newsletter, or follow the Trace on Facebook or Twitter.

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