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Suicide Prevention Effort Aims To Get People In Crisis To Voluntarily Give Up Guns


The number of people using guns to take their own lives is rising. Many public health officials offer this solution - take guns away from people in crisis. Leigh Paterson of member station KUNC visited a community in northern Colorado. And a quick note - this story runs about four minutes, and it discusses suicide.

LEIGH PATERSON, BYLINE: Damon Hatfield lives in a small town called Craig.

DAMON HATFIELD: Here's my gun cabinet.

PATERSON: Craig is known as the elk hunting capital of the world.

HATFIELD: This is what they call a coach gun. This is an antique.

PATERSON: But last summer, Damon gave his guns away. Now, a year later, he describes why he made that choice. It was the middle of the night...

HATFIELD: I had to get up and use the restroom, and I couldn't find my wife anywhere in the house.

PATERSON: She was struggling with a terminal illness and ongoing mental health issues. Damon found her on the porch.

HATFIELD: And I tried to wake her and I saw the gun on her chest, and it was the worst day of my life right there.

PATERSON: She had killed herself. Damon managed to call 911. Police came. Then the victim advocate showed up. Their role is to support the survivor. So they asked him, do you have any guns in the home?

HATFIELD: I'm like, well, yeah. And they said, well, we need to get them. I'm like, OK. You're depressed. You blame yourself. Those are dangerous times, and getting the guns out of the house was a good idea.

PATERSON: That idea is starting to gain traction as a solution to the growing challenge of firearm suicide in rural areas. But solutions are complicated. In Colorado and elsewhere, there's been significant pushback against a new law that allows judges to order the removal of guns from people in crisis.

MEGHAN FRANCONE: I'm a member of the NRA. I'm not anti-firearm. I am pro-gun safety.

PATERSON: Meghan Francone was one of the advocates who showed up to Damon's house that night. When she's able to intervene in time, Francone says people almost always agree to give up their guns.

FRANCONE: Because it's a personal and voluntary choice. I'm not here to take away anything. All I'm asking is if somebody is in crisis, please increase time and distance between them and their most lethal means.

PATERSON: This voluntary approach involves gun owners in a solution to firearm suicide. It can mean getting guns out of the house or locking them up in the house. Momentum behind these kinds of solutions is building. In northwest Colorado, some gun shops offer to store guns; law enforcement does, too. The Department of Veterans Affairs has been encouraging this as well. Public health experts in a handful of states have mapped out these locations for gun drop off.

EMMY BETZ: I am an emergency physician at the University of Colorado.

PATERSON: Dr. Emmy Betz put together one of those maps. She hopes that over time, voluntary storage will become such a widespread part of gun culture that it even has a catchphrase, like friends don't let friends drive drunk.

BETZ: And I don't know what that catchphrase is because I'm not in advertising (laughter). But how do we get to the point where it just becomes a norm?

PATERSON: Given the scale of firearm suicide deaths in America - around 24,000 people die this way each year - voluntary storage alone isn't enough. Damon Hatfield's story illustrates the problem. It's hard to know who shouldn't have access to guns and when, like his wife.

HATFIELD: She was in a bad spot. You know, like, a few years ago, she asked me to take the gun out of the house. Maybe I should have kept the gun out of the house. So there it is, cycle of grief.

PATERSON: Damon has put in a lot of work to get through his wife's suicide. He reads books about grief. He talks about it with friends and family. He says he cries every day. And four months after the incident, he got his firearms back.

HATFIELD: And most people would be like, well, how could you have a gun in your house? How could you even pick one up after this? A gun's a tool. It's like a hammer. I don't blame the gun for this.

PATERSON: While Damon does support efforts to separate people in crisis from their guns, he also urges others to get help, talk about it. Later that afternoon, Damon headed out for another counseling appointment. For NPR News, I'm Leigh Paterson.

KING: There's more reporting on this at the site gunsandamerica.org. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Email: lpaterson@insideenergy.org; leighpaterson@rmpbs.org