CASPER, Wyo. — A teen who killed himself in Casper in early 2009 left behind grieving families and friends.
His survivors asked “Why would he do this?”
The owner of Rocky Mountain Discount Sports knew the question of how was just as important.
Shawn Wagner’s store, with the assistance of some of its suppliers, gave away more than 900 gun locks at the Natrona County Suicide Prevention Task Force booth at the Blue Envelope Health Fair.
“I heard lots of positive things,” Wagner said recently. “People still ask for them.”
As one who has intervened to stop three suicides, as well as a retailer of hundreds of guns, Wagner knows the link between a personal life-threatening crisis and the inherent lethality of firearms.
He’s instructed store staff members to watch out for despondent gun customers, he said. “My guys know not to sell them to (depressed) people.”
Wagner offers the same advice for gun owners in general, and for those who may themselves may be depressed or enduring a crisis, he said. “The best suggestion is to lock up your guns, lock up your ammo, and lock them up separately.”
The time it takes to unlock two safes may give that person the time to reconsider.
“If you have a gun on your table, it’s a lot easier to pick it up and point it at your temple,” Wagner said.
How and why
Wagner’s observations, intuition and action on a local level echo the national findings of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.
The means used affect whether a suicide attempt results in hospitalization or death, said Catherine Barber, the study’s author.
“Traditionally, suicide prevention has focused on who takes their life, when, where, and especially why,” Barber said in her report of the campaign “Means Matter: Suicide, Guns & Public Health.”
“Why” includes substance abuse, depression, impulsiveness and aggressiveness, family history, previous attempts and hopelessness, she said.
However, the moment a suicidal person acts often occurs during a brief period of heightened vulnerability, Barber said.
Whether that action turns fatal depends on the availability of highly lethal methods, she said.
“In the U.S., that means guns,” Barber said. “We are beginning to understand that how people attempt suicide plays a crucial role in whether they live or die.”
First, the time element.
According to the center, 24 percent of those who nearly died in a suicide attempt said less than 5 minutes elapsed between the decision and the act, and another 47 percent said less than an hour. One third of youths who died by suicide had faced a crisis within the past 24 hours.
Second, the means.
People who attempt suicide are often ambivalent, and some act impulsively during a short-term crisis, Barber said. “If a highly lethal method is unavailable and an attempter substitutes a less lethal method, the odds are increased that the attempt will be nonfatal.”
Nationwide, more than 31,000 people killed themselves each year on average from 2001 to 2007, or a rate of nearly 12 per 100,000 population, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Wyoming, during that same period, an average of 98 residents — roughly 19 per 100,000 — committed suicide each year, according to figures from the state Health Department.
Of the suicide attempts, 64 percent involved poisoning, followed by cutting at 19 percent, other means at 16 percent, and jumping and firearms at 2 percent each, according to Barber and data from the CDC.
But the lethality was another matter.
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Nationally, firearms accounted for slightly more than half — 6.3 per 100,000 — of the total completed suicides, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
Suffocation, usually hanging, was the second leading method at 2.4 per 100,000, followed by poisoning at 2.0 per 100,000.
In Wyoming, firearms accounted for two-thirds — 13.3 per 100,000 — of the total completed suicides, followed by suffocation at 3.2 per 100,000 and poisoning at 3.0 per 100,000.
The difference between national and Wyoming rates correlates with household gun ownership, Barber said.
In 2004, the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System surveyed nearly 241,000 adults and asked them if they owned firearms. Nationally, about 36 percent of households had firearms, compared to about 65 percent of Wyoming households.
Firearms are inherently lethal, with an 85 percent fatality rate in suicide attempts that exceeds all other methods, Barber said.
Pulling a trigger is faster than making a noose or overdosing. Hanging and poisoning also give an opportunity for a person to back out of the decision, she said.
Gun owners are no more likely than non-owners to have mental illness or to kill themselves, Barber said. “Gun owners aren’t more suicidal. They’re just more likely to die if they become suicidal.”
Dealing with it
Barber acknowledges those who don’t have a gun may try something else. “But they are much more likely to survive an attempt by another method.”
She also acknowledges reducing access to lethal means may not prevent a suicide, she said. “We don’t have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution for suicide prevention.”
Counselors at the Central Wyoming Counseling Center recognize that when they receive calls from people who say they are suicidal, said outgoing director Mike Huston.
They conduct “lethality assessments” to inquire about personal issues including guns, Huston said. “The availability of firearms is a big deal.”
Wagner, of Rocky Mountain Discount Sports, recognized that with his local gun lock distribution.
And the Harvard Injury Control Research Center helped take that recognition to a statewide level after being contacted by the New Hampshire Firearms Safety Coalition, said Mary Vriniotis, project manager of Means Matter.
The coalition asked Vriniotis to interview gun dealers and shooting range owners about what they could do to reduce suicide by firearms, she said. She was able to interview about half the dealers in New Hampshire, and many of them — including the state’s largest retailer and a range owner — agreed to participate.
On Sept. 12, the coalition announced its pilot project, which includes a poster for stores and ranges with advice such as having a friend hold the guns of someone who is suicidal, Vriniotis said. They also made brochures about keeping guns safe.
Dealers will call police if they have a potentially suicidal customer, refuse to sell to a depressed customer, and alert other dealers about that customer, she said. “This is a way they can make a positive impact.”
Vriniotis, Barber and Huston emphatically asserted their research, findings and actions are not about gun control or Second Amendment rights.
“The goal isn’t to be anti-firearms, but to make them inaccessible,” Huston said.
“There may be some people who are hard to convince about innovative ways of firearms safety,” Vriniotis added.
But suicide profoundly affects families, friends and communities, and firearms should not be exempt from scrutiny, she said. “A lot of people in the gun world know someone who committed suicide with a gun.”
Barber likened Means Matter to the “friends don’t let friends drive drunk” campaigns.
Recognizing the research and taking action will not happen by a government-driven program, Barber said. “It totally depends on the gun owners.”