Most of the residents who died by suicide last year in La Plata County used a firearm.
Guns were also used in nearly half of the more than 10,000 deaths by suicide that happened in Colorado between 2004 and 2015, according to Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data. The high rate of suicide deaths involving firearms is a theme that is common across the West.
To combat the problem, The Gun Shop Project was launched five years ago in Colorado to distribute suicide-prevention materials to gun shops and gun ranges.
San Juan Basin Public Health is relaunching the effort.
Through the project, gun shop and gun range employees receive materials listing signs that might help identify if someone is suicidal, such as displaying no knowledge of firearms, asking no questions and displaying distressed emotions.
Gun Shop Project materials provided for customers encourage them to look for signs and symptoms of suicidality in their family members and encourage them to temporarily remove weapons from their homes if necessary.
Gunsmith Keith Carey, owner of Black Canyon Gunsmithing in Montrose, was one of the early members of the Gun Shop Project, recognizing that firearms are frequently used in suicides.
“Nobody likes the thought of suicide, no matter how it’s done, let alone with a firearm,” he said. “Unfortunately, firearms are readily available in rural America, and they are generally fairly efficient.”
Carey, an adamant supporter of gun rights, provides suicide-prevention materials in his business, he said.
“I personally have not had anybody make any negative comments,” he said. But residents also are not eager to talk about it, he said.
Carey is personally familiar with the issue because his daughter died by suicide in 2009 by anti-depression medication. Although, he doesn’t draw a distinction based on how someone might choose to die by suicide, Carey said.
“It’s always a tragedy,” he said.
The Gun Shop Project was started in New Hampshire by a retailer who learned two of his customers had died by suicide using firearms they purchased in his store, said Sarah Brummett, director of the Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention. The project supplies educational materials about suicide for employees and customers.
Some materials include signs to look for in people who may be feeling suicidal and should not be sold a firearm, she said. Limiting access to a firearm while someone is experiencing those feelings can save a life by giving the individual time to gain additional perspective, she said.
Restriction to lethal means has been shown to effectively reduce suicides. For example, suicide deaths among Israel military members fell substantially after the Israel Defense Forces required service members to check in their weapons on weekends, she said.
The “secret sauce” to starting the project in 21 Colorado counties has been the local community members who understand firearm language and the culture around firearms, and are willing to help recruit shops and ranges to participate, Brummett said.
“It’s about safety. It’s about supporting the community and being part of suicide prevention,” she said.
In some communities, the project has helped bring together those promoting mental health and those who work with guns or use guns as a hobby, she said.
In La Plata County, San Juan Basin Public Health expects to work with local law enforcement to educate gun shops and the ranges, said Laura Warner, interim deputy director of operations.
“While gun retailers and firing ranges do not need to become experts in assisting someone experiencing a crisis, it is critical that they know how to connect that person who is struggling to resources that can help,” she said.
They can also encourage customers to keep firearms safely away from loved ones who may be in crisis, she said.
San Juan Basin Public Health previously participated in the Gun Shop Project, but it ended its participation because the agency had a hard time finding outside advocates, she said.