If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741. You can also dial or text 988.
COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – A first-of-its-kind statewide campaign is partnering with a unique sector to end suicide: gun owners in Ohio.
About 10 gun shops across the state have partnered with the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation (OSPF) to launch Life Side Ohio – a “groundbreaking” awareness campaign aimed at putting politics aside to curtail suicides by firearm, according to OSPF Executive Director Tony Coder.
“What’s so great about Life Side is no matter where you’re at on the political spectrum, nobody wants their loved one, their friend, their community member to die by suicide,” Coder said.
Firearms are the number one way to die by suicide in Franklin County, where 48% of suicides were completed with a gun in both 2020 and 2021, according to a county coroner’s report. Nationwide, firearms accounted for nearly 53% of suicide deaths in 2020, the American Suicide Prevention Foundation said.
While intentional overdoses are the most commonly used method for suicide attempts, the 85% lethality rate of firearms accounts for the majority of suicide attempts that turn fatal, according to Dr. Lauren Khazem, a research assistant professor at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center.
“Gun owners need to be part of the conversation around suicide prevention,” Coder said. “The topic of firearms is so politically charged right now, and instead, we want to work with gun shop owners, we want to work with gun owners […] about gun safety.”
The coronavirus pandemic saw a surge in gun sales, whether it was because of the loosening of some firearm laws that made them more accessible, Coder said, or the fact that more Americans reported fearing for their personal safety, according to Khazem, who works in the hospital’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health.
One thing that researchers have found, Khazem said, is that people who bought guns in the midst of the pandemic reported having more suicidal ideation than non-gun owners and those who bought a firearm before the pandemic.
“It is possible that there is something different about needing to purchase the firearm now versus in the past, and having that presence of the firearm is linked to higher risk of suicide, even if someone isn’t suicidal in the moment,” she said.
That’s why the OSPF has equipped central Ohio gun shops like L.E.P.D., Vance Outdoors, and Black Wing Shooting Center with suicide prevention resources to distribute to customers, Coder said. Gun shop employees are encouraged to promote safe gun storage and training practices, and suicide prevention training called QPR – Question, Persuade and Refer – helps personnel identify firearm-seeking customers who may be suicidal.
For Joe King, the range and training manager at Black Wing in Delaware, the decision to link arms with OSPF to identify suicidal ideation among the gun-owning community was a “no brainer.”
“I specifically asked, like, ‘Hey, I’d like to take the lead on this because unfortunately, like most people, suicide has impacted my life,’” King said. “And I’m in a very unique position to be able to help reach out and be a part of this.”
Black Wing has worked to combat firearm suicide since day one, even before collaborating with OSPF, King said, but the partnership has “really evolved” the gun shop’s ability to identify potential mental health challenges or suicidal ideation among its customers and members.
Whether it’s noticing something off with a regular visitor to Black Wing’s ranges or a new customer who complains of being “tired of it all,” King said, “that’s a giant red flag” that may prompt employees to prod a little deeper.
“That sounds very customer-service oriented, but you know, we’re just digging to see, like, ‘How are you really, you know? What brings you in here today?’” King said. “Depending on how those conversations go depends on if, you know, you get to visit the range or not.”
But suicide prevention efforts targeting gun shops and gun owners are not about taking away people’s firearms, Khazem said. For mental health professionals, that’s the last resort.
“The last thing we want to do is take away something that gives someone a sense of meaning, maybe even a sense of community, but we want to make sure that someone can survive to enjoy their firearm later,” she said.
What mental health professionals and Life Side Ohio emphasize is that safely storing guns, in a safe and with a gun lock, can significantly curb the likelihood of suicide when “these very brief, intense moments of crisis” come around – even if the gun owner or those in the household are not suicidal, Khazem said.
King said he is going to be frank: Guns sold at Black Wing may have been used in one person’s final, “terrible moment,” he said. But “don’t think for one second it doesn’t hurt that salesperson or that training staff.”
Touched by suicide in his own life, King and other personnel at Black Wing will continue to listen to that "gut feeling" and approach customers who may display signs of suicidal ideation. A question as simple as, “Hey, how are you really?” could mean the difference between life and death, he said.
“It’s not about sales numbers and sales goals,” King said. “To us, it’s about getting the right firearm to the right person.”