3 Safety Strategies and 4 Success Stories Regarding Guns and Suicide Prevention: It’s About Safety, Not Politics

By Helen Littrel and Sally Spencer-Thomas

Over 50 people die of firearm suicide every day.

Significantly, this statistic has led to thriving partnerships among such groups as the National Rifle Association, the Second Amendment Foundation, gun shop owners, and --  suicide prevention advocates.

Wait, what?

Firearm Safety is really about Suicide Prevention: How the Facts Forged the Partnerships

 It all comes down to safety. While nine out of ten people who attempt suicide will not go on to die of suicide, nine out of ten people who attempt suicide with a gun will die. This compares with, for example, 1 to 2 per cent suicide death rates from medication overdoses.[1]

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In the United States over half of all suicides use firearms.  Firearm suicide numbers are much smaller in other countries.

According to the CDC, in 2015 there were:[2]

·       Firearm deaths = 36,252

·       Firearm suicides = 22,018

·       Firearm homicides = 12,979

·       Accidental gun deaths = 489

·       Gun deaths from legal Intervention = 484

·       Other = 282

When we take a look at states with higher rates of gun ownership, the suicide rates are much higher, even after controlling for differences among states for mental health conditions and addiction, poverty, population density, and unemployment. In other words, people in households with firearms are not more depressed or suicidal; however they far more likely to die by suicide because when that impulsive moment of acting on a suicidal thought incites action, a deadly behavior is easily accessible.

Furthermore, firearm suicides are not limited to firearms owners.  Households with guns have two to five times the suicide rate of households without guns, for all members of gun-owning households.

This means our kids are also at higher risk for suicide death when a gun is in the home – 82% of adolescent firearm suicides involve a gun belonging to a family member.[3]

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Having access to and knowledge of how to use a firearm makes the difference between life and death in the heat of a suicide crisis[4]. Period.

We can all agree, firearm suicides are tragic.  This video shares the poignant stories of the suicide loss survivors left behind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P64f5byxJ5k



Reducing Access to Lethal Means Saves Lives: Many International Examples

“If people really want to die by suicide, they will just find a way.” Right? Wrong.

It is a common myth that all people who want to die will persist with or without a firearm. The truth is many people have mentally rehearsed or even practiced a preferred method and don’t have a well thought out “plan B.” When their suicide plans are interrupted, they either delay the attempt or – in rare circumstances -- they switch methods impulsively. Almost always, this substitution is less lethal. And in almost all cases, the fact that the attempt was thwarted buys precious time to solve problems, access treatment and de-escalate the situation.

International experience clearly demonstrates that removing suicide methods can greatly reduce suicide rates.  Examples include the United Kingdom, where death by residential gassing was a popular method. When domestic gas was changed to a non-toxic formulation, gas suicides fell to nearly zero and the overall suicide rate fell by 30 per cent. In Sri Lanka, better control of pesticides, the number one suicide method, reduced total suicides by 50 percent.

In 2006, the Israeli military stopped letting soldiers take home service weapons on the weekend; the suicide rate fell 40 percent.

But in America, where the rights to bear arms is an important value to many there is strong resistance to restricting access to firearms, even from potentially suicidal people, so policy approaches are unlikely to succeed.

Let’s look at other alternatives.


Firearm Suicide Prevention in the United States: 3 Safety Strategies

With the statistics about suicide being known, the united message of “Firearm ownership is your right. Safe firearm usage is your responsibility,” brings together all parties that hold firearm safety as a priority. While they are against firearm ownership restrictions, the National Rifle Association and other gun rights organizations generally recognize that gun owners should balance their constitutional right to own firearms with a voluntary, moral and commonsense responsibility to use and store them safely. When suicide prevention advocates work collaboratively with gun rights advocates towards suicide prevention methods they support, a higher adoption and longevity of the safer practices will result.

Here are three safety strategies we can agree upon

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 1)     Safe-storage. Here is a hopeful fact: among firearm-owning households, those that store their firearms safely have a 60 percent lower suicide rate. This reduction arises because members of the household (such as adolescents) who are not authorized to use the firearms, can no longer easily access them.  It also seems that some impulsive handgun suicides are averted by the simple need to take a few minutes to perform several precise manual actions to unlock, load, and use the firearm.  This gives the individual time to reflect upon his or her actions. If just a quarter of households kept their guns from a suicidal person, it is estimated that 3600 to 3900 American lives would be saved in one year.[5]

What constitutes “safe storage”? Simply hiding the weapon is not good enough. The firearm should be stored unloaded, with a gun lock and secured in a locked cabinet or safe, preferably with the ammunition stored separately.

2)     Collaborative temporary removal: When someone is intoxicated we temporarily (often with voluntary consent) remove access to a motor vehicle to get that person home safely. The same idea holds true when someone is suicidal, and there is a gun in the home. During the white hot crisis of suicide, it is commonsense to temporarily remove the firearm(s). Temporary out-of-home storage can be done at ranges, retail outlets, pawn shops, military armories – even police departments and family members. Different states have different laws regarding transfers and background checks, and different groups have different levels of willingness to hold firearms, so investigate your local options first.

3)     Training for Gun Owners, Shooting Ranges and Retailers: Baking in “suicide prevention” into the safety culture of gun owners is the goal.  Retailers and shooting range owners are often devastated to know that one of their customers used their guns for the sole purpose of dying by suicide. For this reason, many have welcomed training on how to notice warning signs and intervene if they are concerned.

Updated firearm safety training for gun owners used to have “10 Commandments for Safety” – now the 11th Commandment is about suicide prevention. See New Hampshire’s example here: https://coloradocoalitionforfirearmsafety.files.wordpress.com/2016/12/safetyfinal_02.pdf

Utah has developed this training for gun shop retailers: https://vimeo.com/175761640 and https://vimeo.com/175761640


Firearm Suicide Prevention: 4 Promising Practices of Partnership

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Pro-gun groups want their communities to be safe too, so they are finding ways to help advocate for reducing access to firearms by collaborating with families when one member is living with suicidal thoughts. Here are just three of many success stories:

National: National Shooting Sports Foundation & AFSP Partnership: https://afsp.org/our-work/education/firearms-suicide-prevention-program/

New Hampshire:  Founded in 1994, the New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition brings together many people with a broad range of views on gun ownership who share a concern with safety and with preventing suicide. They have led the nation in successful collaboration among researchers, gun shops and firing ranges, legislators, injury prevention and mental health advocates and have made monumental progress. See here: http://theconnectprogram.org/firearms-safety-coalitions-role-nh-suicide-prevention

Washington: The Forefront suicide prevention program partnered with the NRA and the Second Amendment Foundation to develop the Safer Homes training.

·       Firearms Retailer/Safety Instructor Training



Gun Shop Training Role Play:  https://vimeo.com/232938737

Gun Shop Training Role Play: https://vimeo.com/232938737

Colorado: Treating physicians at Children’s Hospital worked collaboratively with families of suicidal teens who agreed to lock up guns if counseled appropriately (Brent, Kruesi, Runyan).

Colorado Gun Safety Project https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PwBgcjDVxxE

Emmy Betz video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PwBgcjDVxxE



(1)  Brady Center: The Truth about Suicide and Guns http://www.bradycampaign.org/sites/default/files/Brady-Guns-Suicide-Report-2016.pdf

(2) CDC WISQARS https://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/facts.html

(3) Youth Access to Firearms: Source of Firearms in Youth Suicide https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/means-matter/means-matter/youth-access/

(4) Harvard School of Public Health: Means Matter https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/means-matter/means-matter/


About the Authors


Helen Littrell is a PsyD student at the Graduate School for Professional Psychology at the University of Denver. She is also a Community Coordinator at Karis Community, which provides transitional living support for individuals recovering from severe and persistent mental illness. She completed her Bachelor of Science (Psychology) degree at the Australian National University (ANU). During her time at ANU she volunteered as a crisis telephone counselor for Lifeline, Australia’s national crisis helpline. Through Lifeline, Helen discovered her personal and professional interest in suicide prevention. Helen is currently researching the role language plays in suicide prevention and intervention. She can be reached at helen.littrell@du.edu or https://www.linkedin.com/in/helenlittrell/


Sally Spencer-Thomas headshot (2).jpg

Sally Spencer-Thomas is a clinical psychologist, inspirational international speaker and an impact entrepreneur. Dr. Spencer-Thomas was moved to work in suicide prevention after her younger brother, a Denver entrepreneur, died of suicide after a difficult battle with bipolar condition. Known nationally and internationally as an innovator in social change, Spencer-Thomas has helped start up multiple large-scale, gap filling efforts in mental health including the award-winning campaign Man Therapy and the nation’s first initiative for suicide prevention in the workplace. In 2016 she was an invited speaker at the White House. Her goal is to elevate the conversation and make suicide prevention a health and safety priority in our schools, workplaces and communities. Connect with Sally at www.SallySpencerThomas.com and on Facebook (@DrSallySpeaks), Twitter (@sspencerthomas) and LinkedIn.


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[1] https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/means-matter/means-matter/risk/

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/facts.html

[3] https://injury.research.chop.edu/violence-prevention-initiative/types-violence-involving-youth/gun-violence/gun-violence-facts-and#.We_I_VtSypo

[4] Harvard School of Public Health https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/magazine/magazine_article/guns-suicide/

[5] Barber, C. & Miller, M. (2014). Reducing a suicidal person’s access to lethal means of suicide: A research agenda. American Journal of Preventative Medicine. 4;47(3S2):S264–S272. Retrieved on November 22, 2017 from. http://actionallianceforsuicideprevention.org/sites/actionallianceforsuicideprevention.org/files/Reducing%20a%20Suicidal%20Persons%20Access%20to%20Lethal.pdf

Sally Spencer-Thomas