Here's How the Gun Industry Plans to Prevent 10,000 Suicides

They're still selling guns—but it could still be a big development.

Aug 30 2016, 8:30pm

Image by Flickr user profeellau

This post originally appeared on the Trace.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the top trade group for the gun industry in the United States, is partnering for the first time with the country's leading suicide-prevention organization. The ambitious goal of the collaboration: averting nearly 10,000 deaths over the next decade.

The program, initiated by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), will strive to educate people on the risk factors and warning signs of suicide and provide guidance on how best to talk to someone who may be considering trying to end his or her own life, said Robert Gebbia, the chief executive of AFSP.

Notably, the program will also recommend blocking family members who are suicidal from accessing firearms by, for example, emphasizing the importance of securely locking guns away. It is not clear whether the AFSP guidance will include specific suggestions about how to remove weapons from potentially suicidal people. The NSSF, which represents thousands of gun dealers and manufacturers, provided input for the program and is also promoting it.

Gun groups have traditionally been reluctant to acknowledge that the presence of a firearm poses an increased risk to people who are considering taking their own lives. Gebbia said buy in from the NSSF is especially important in persuading people that blocking gun access in certain situations is about saving lives, not depriving people of their rights.

"This isn't giving up the firearm forever. It's during that crisis," Gebbia told the Trace. "This is not a Second Amendment issue. It's a way to make sure that people at risk of suicide shouldn't have access to any of the means."

More than half of all suicides in the US are carried out with a firearm. And the method is exceptionally lethal: In 2014, about 87 percent of gun-suicide attempts were fatal, compared to just 3 percent of suicide attempts by drug overdoses, according to an analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control.

Through their collaboration, the suicide-prevention and gun-trade groups will distribute materials to shooting-range operators and gun-safety instructors, who will in turn include suicide prevention in their curriculum and have material on hand for customers and students. A pilot program is set to launch next month in four states: Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, and New Mexico. The goal is to take the program nationwide within two years, Gebbia said.

The program is an arm of the AFSP's Project 2025, which aims to lower the US suicide rate by 20 percent. Based on an analysis done with the consulting firm CALIBRE Systems, AFSP predicts that its firearm education effort could save 9,500 lives in the next decade, if widely adopted.

There is no controlled data to support that estimate, but Michael Anestis, a researcher who studies suicide at the University of Southern Mississippi, said he believes the program could achieve its objective, because it will reach a population that doesn't often confront the risks associated with gun ownership.

"What we've got is a situation where most of our resources go to treatment, which is great, but treatment relies on people coming in," he said.

Though many suicide-prevention groups, such as AFSP, are staunchly apolitical, their firearms-related efforts are often interpreted as a means of gun control. As a result, suicide-prevention and pro-gun groups rarely collaborate. Calling the impact of the partnership "enormous," Anestis said that NSSF's credibility within the gun-owning community will translate to saved lives.

"Any conversation about guns in our country is usually so divisive and emotional and counterproductive," Anestis said. "To present what we do in a culturally sensitive and effective way to [gun owners] is key. Without it, there is a complete disconnect.

"If this kind of partnership can become standard practice," he added, "that is a pivot point in suicide prevention."

Prior to 2015, as policy, the AFSP did not work with gun-industry groups. "We stayed away from gun groups because we were afraid that we would become enmeshed in other political issues," said Nancy Farrell, who chairs AFSP's national board of directors.

But after Farrell and her colleagues watched gun-suicide rates climb—up 13 percent between 2007 and 2013—they were spurred to reach out to the NSSF last year. "It's something we talked through carefully," Farrell said. "I think when people understand the numbers, they would see that ignoring the opportunity of this partnership would be a failure."

The NSSF declined to comment for this article, but experts said its partnership with the ASFP is emblematic of a growing willingness from gun groups to engage with the issue of firearm suicide. Just five years ago, the NSSF rejected a request to join the Gun Shop Project, which teaches workers at gun ranges and retail stores how to identify customers who may be at risk for suicide, according to Cathy Barber, a suicide-prevention expert at the Harvard University School of Public Health and a founder of the project.

"It was a new concept to them, and over the years, they have become more interested and more educated," Barber said.

An ad-hoc team of suicide prevention advocates, public-health professionals, and pro-gun groups in New Hampshire launched the Gun Shop Project. Despite some resistance from gun-shop owners reluctant to assume the duties of mental-health professionals, the project now has a presence in more than two dozen states.

Gun-industry groups have become more tuned in to the issue, Barber said, and some have reached out to the Gun Shop Project without prompting. "Most gun groups have a culture around firearm safety, around protecting the family, so extending that to suicide prevention can be a natural fit," she said.

Moving forward, AFSP is open to partnering with other gun groups both at the state and national level, Gebbia said. The largest, the National Rifle Association, has yet to include suicide prevention in its firearm-training materials, though it did nod at the issue earlier this year when it endorsed a Washington State bill that encourages firearm dealers to participate in suicide-prevention education.

"There is zero question that firearms are the single biggest leverage point for lowering the national-suicide rate," Anestis said. "[The program] is a first step, but it's not as if the problem is solved."

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.

Get the VICE App on iOS and Android

Vice Channels