A poster near the gun counter at Wildlife Taxidermy & Sports Center in Manchester, N.H., asks shoppers if they are “concerned about a family member or friend?” If so, it advises, “hold onto their guns.” On the counter, a stack of business cards gives the number of the local suicide hotline and a brochure offers tips for recognizing someone who may be troubled.
The materials were provided by the Gun Shop Project, a program of the New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition that includes gun advocates, gun shop owners, mental health and public health professionals, including the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. “This is no grand scheme to take away someone’s right to own a firearm,” says John Yule, part-owner of Wildlife Taxidermy & Sports Center. “This is a good program created to protect individuals, families, and communities.”
One or two of Yule’s customers have objected to the poster, but in a state where, in a rare instance, one gun shop sold three firearms that resulted in three suicides in a single week, he says most people understand the value of the program. “It’s something almost everyone can relate to. We have all experienced hopelessness at some point in life. The majority of people can just go forward, but sometimes people need time to pull themselves together. They do not need access to a firearm during that time.”
This straightforward approach is at the heart of the Gun Shop Project, explains David Hemenway, PhD, a 1999 recipient of a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Investigator Award in Health Policy Research (1999-2000) who reported on the project’s success on November 4, 2013 at the American Public Health Association Meeting and Exposition in Boston. The project’s basic concept is simple: Guns are an irreversible response to what is often a passing crisis. Limiting access at key moments may prevent a personal injury or major public incident.
“The science shows us that not only is suicide the leading type of death from a firearm, but having a gun in the home increases the incidence of suicide, femicide [shooting a woman], and the likelihood that people in the community will be shot. Many mass shootings, like those at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, involve the suicide of the shooter,” Hemenway says. “One way to prevent the shootings may be to prevent the suicide.”
Creating a Culture of Safety
“But it’s hard to think of background check or other laws that might have prevented the Sandy Hook shootings,” he says. There are millions of legally-owned guns in homes all over America and most of the adult school shooters did not have criminal records. They would have been able to buy guns.
The data produced by Hemenway; Cathy Barber, MPA; Matthew Miller, MD, and other members of their team paint a stark picture of the role that momentary access to a gun plays in the loss of life across the United States. They report that in 2010, 19,392 people died by suicide using guns, while only 11,078 were killed by other people with guns.
During Hemenway’s RWJF Investigator term, his team showed that the states with the highest rate of gun ownership also had much higher rates of gun-related suicide than the states with the lowest rate of gun ownership—3.7 times higher for men and 7.9 times higher for women. In his book, Private Guns: Public Health, he also reported that suicides carried out by means other than firearms were roughly equal in the two groups of states.
While these numbers got the attention of public health experts, the project team translated research into action by forming partnerships at the community level. “We developed a brief module to assess whether someone is in crisis, along with the posters and brochures,” Hemenway says.
Helping customers use guns safely is not a new practice among gun shop owners, says Yule, who has been in the business since 1994. “The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives publishes information to help us look for legal issues with buyers, but this is more personal.” Having talked to hundreds of potential gun owners, Yule, who has recently intervened in two sales to people who might have been a danger to themselves or others, says there are certain red flags.
“Hunters usually want to talk about what type of hunting they plan to do or people will openly discuss the need to protect their home. But if you try to teach someone how to clean or maintain a gun and they say they don’t need to know how to clean it or take care of it, there may be a problem,” Yule says. “There are also telltale behaviors including agitation or obvious anger.”
The Public Health Approach
The ultimate goal of the coalition is to see the Gun Shop Project achieve results similar to the national effort to stop drunk driving. “We want to work with the gun-owning community to create reasonable norms about when to get the guns out of the house,” Hemenway says. “If a neighbor is also a gun owner, for example, that neighbor could be asked to hold the firearms until another neighbor’s difficult period has passed. It’s the same idea as the ‘don’t let a friend drive drunk’ campaign. This can make a difference. Remember, most of the kids who carried out the school shootings had access to family guns.”
In addition to the many New Hampshire gun shops that are part of the project, several in Maryland are planning to participate. “This is a growing national effort. We are working with the United States Army, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and other groups to try to reduce suicides by limiting access to lethal means at critical periods,” Hemenway explains.
The team is also working to target straw purchasers (people who obtain guns legally for people who cannot pass a background check), especially women who are often pressed into doing this for men. Hemenway says he is “confident that tackling the many different types of gun injuries can create a safer America.”
Learn more about the RWJF Investigator Awards in Health Policy Research.
For an overview of RWJF scholar and fellow opportunities, visit www.RWJFLeaders.org.