Article Thumbnail

How a Staunch Pro-Firearm State Found Hope in the Gun Suicide Crisis

In Utah, gun lobbyists, legislators and researchers worked together on a common goal: to cut down the rate of suicide by firearms. It’s an uncommon story that — even more strangely — seems to actually be working

In the heart of Clark Aposhian’s home sits a tall gun safe, constructed from quarter-inch steel and designed to withstand any method of entry other than the right code punched into the keypad. 

There is enough room inside for three rows of long guns, standing on end, and a little shelf where handguns and ammunition sit. Normally, the safe would be reserved for just Aposhian’s own firearms, which range from unassuming Glock pistols to fully automatic rifles. But for the last eight months, it has been home to something else: An armful of weapons owned by another man. 

The story of how this foreign trio of long guns, plus a pistol, ended up in Aposhian’s home is one of tragedy. As a gun-rights lobbyist and board chair of the Utah Shooting Sports Council (USSC), Aposhian has long pushed for people to have more access to the firearms they want. But eight months ago, his phone buzzed with a call from a friend on a Wednesday night. The man’s son was struggling with depression; would Aposhian be able to hold the guns in the house, if necessary? 

“They were trying to get his son help, but there was just a big waiting period. I was at my office, so I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll head over there now.’ But he wasn’t sure whether it was necessary to remove the guns,” Aposhian says. “I told him I had room in my gun safe, and could come over right now. And he said, ‘I’ll let you know, Clark.’” 

Three days later, Aposhian received another call: His friend’s son had found one of the guns in the home and died by suicide. He knew the following weeks were critical for his friend’s safety; so did that friend’s sister, who reached out to Aposhian from Oregon, worried about self-harm. They discussed a plan to broach the traumatic subject, and ultimately, Aposhian took the lead, walking his friend through a plan over the phone — he could take the guns off his hands, at least until the daily pain and anxiety faded to something slightly more manageable. 

“There may be long-term effects or it may be very short, but everybody that is human, a mental-health emergency will affect them probably at sometime in their life. And those people are, for that duration of time, in crisis. And what research has found again and again is the last thing somebody in crisis needs is access to a gun,” Aposhian tells me. 

That has become especially pertinent in 2020, a year in which a global pandemic led to the collapse of the U.S. economy, saddling millions of Americans with an overwhelming loss of life, money and livelihood. Mental-health experts remain concerned that economic stressors, plus the isolation of being increasingly stuck at home, could lead to increased rates of suicide. A survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in June found that anxiety and depression symptoms skyrocketed in volume over the course of the spring and summer; it also found one in four respondents aged 18 to 24 had seriously considered suicide in the past month. 

Couple that with an unprecedented gun-buying boom at the first peak of the pandemic, and you have the makings of a crisis. Multiple studies demonstrate that a larger number of guns correlate strongly with increased suicides. It’s not that owning a gun makes you more suicidal — instead, it merely makes the attempt far more deadly. The effect is disproportionate, too: Men own the vast majority of guns in America, and they account for the vast majority of gun suicides as well. Consider that 85 percent of gun suicide attempts end in death, compared to just 3 percent for the most popular method, a drug overdose. 

“Once we start seeing statistics, I do believe we will see an increase in suicides completed by men this year compared to 2019,” says Andrew Smiler, a therapist and author who is an expert on masculinity. “One of the things that we know happened after the Great Recession in 2008 is that a higher than usual number of men committed suicide. And that very much seemed to be related to those men losing their job and not being able to find another one.” 

For myriad reasons, the suicide crisis has worsened in the last decade — about 23,000 people die via gun suicide in the U.S. each year. Despite the obvious ties, however, there remains a cultural wall between the discussion of guns and self-harm. The majority of states lack formal programs to help educate gun owners about suicide risk, both for themselves and others who may have access to their firearm. And with the nation’s collective mental health still hanging in purgatory, those who have been fighting to stop gun suicides argue it’s an important time to expand efforts and save lives. 

The culprit for such inaction? 

As Utah Rep. Steve Eliason describes it, it’s a combination of genuine ignorance about how much firearms impact the suicide crisis, plus some deep-seated suspicion that plans to reduce gun suicides are really just plans to take away guns. 

Eliason knows the resistance firsthand, given that he’s the one who first sat Aposhian down to talk about the issue, all the way back in 2013. The Republican lawmaker was startled to realize that 85 percent of the state’s death by firearms was because of suicide, not homicide. He wondered if Aposhian knew, too. “When I first mentioned the issue of gun suicides to him, Clark burst into laughter. I said, ‘Just hear me out,’ and laid out the statistics. That’s when the mood changed,” Eliason tells me. “He never realized that we lose a huge, disproportionate share of gun owners to suicide, despite gun owners not having higher mental illness rates.” 

Eliason also knew from personal experience that preventing gun access at times of crisis were crucial; he had lost three extended family members to suicide by gun, each time with a weapon that belonged to someone else. He knew the research on how suicide is almost always an impulse decision that can be deterred. And with every piece of evidence placed in front of him at that restaurant meeting, Aposhian sank deeper into thought. He didn’t know that Utah ranked in the top five in the nation for gun suicides. But he knew he couldn’t ignore the data as the chair of the USSC.  

“I showed another board member the findings. We knew we couldn’t just sit on it. We had to act, but it would involve things that in the past had been viewed as attempts to lock up or take away guns. I expected to leave that room with my membership revoked,” Aposhian tells me with a low laugh. 

Instead, early skepticism bloomed into committed action, as well as new partnerships with unlikely allies. One key one was Cathy Barber, a top researcher on suicide at Harvard University who began working with Eliason in 2014 and eventually met Aposhian two years later. Despite their wildly differing backgrounds and experience with firearms, the trio have become the core of a network that has helped reverse Utah’s crisis. As someone who didn’t grow up with guns, Barber acknowledges a significant part of the battle has been learning to empathize with gun owners — and not appear as a typical liberal threat, too. 

“I still remember more than a decade ago, when I would go to national and state meetings on suicidology, and the minute someone mentioned a gun, everyone started talking about gun control measures. Universal background checks? Assault rifle bans? I didn’t think it had anything to do with the issue,” Barber tells me. “And when I surveyed all the state suicide prevention groups on whether they work on this issue, most told me no, because it was too controversial. It just hadn’t occurred to people to do something.” 

In the last several years, Utah has implemented policies that seem radical compared to other states. The state created a program for gun shops to distribute pamphlets and other information regarding firearm suicide risk, as well as a 10-minute video that everyone who applies (or reapplies) for a concealed-carry permit must watch. It released a critically acclaimed public service announcement that avoids doom-and-gloom violence and instead focuses on an earnest conversation with a man at a shooting range. The state Department of Health has expanded its suicide prevention programs and added an increased emphasis on firearms. Eliason helped broker a partnership with the state’s largest media outlet to advertise and send free trigger locks to anyone who wanted one (“We sent out 10,000 in just a few days,” he notes excitedly). The state’s infrastructure has improved, too, allowing Utah to collect and track comprehensive data on suicides. 

All of this has happened without a major push to reduce the number of guns in circulation, which is perhaps the most compelling evidence of all for suicide-prevention advocates that want to see the same efforts in every state. There’s nothing particularly new about what Eliason, Barber, Aposhian and others proposed for Utah — the big difference has been the care they took to tailor the message to one of the most gun-obsessed states in the union.  

Unfortunately, in 2020, that conversation hasn’t accelerated despite some alarming changes in suicide risk factors. Perhaps that’s a testament to how difficult it is to achieve the political alchemy of gun lobbyists, legislators and researchers all being on the same page. Eliason, for one, ran into opposition from the National Rifle Association on one of his bills until Aposhian helped tweak the language and made his case. But the success in Utah and New Hampshire, another pioneering state for gun suicide prevention, makes the general lack of holistic efforts all the more bewildering. If the average gun owner is anything like Aposhian or himself, Eliason argues, they’re likely in the dark about how big of a tragedy unfolds every year. 

“We know that PSAs like the one we ran in Utah work. The best kind of outreach is the one that is friendly to gun owners, and carries a tale of resistance and recovery during hard times,” Barber says. “It’s a message of ‘Hey, you can get through this, but it would be helpful if you didn’t hurt yourself during the worst times.’ But we need more.”

There will always be points of tension in such alliances; Aposhian, for one, still staunchly opposes “red-flag” laws that empower law enforcement to confiscate weapons from people at risk of violent behavior, despite support from other suicide-prevention advocates. In his eyes, the point of educating the public is giving them agency to take care of themselves and their loved ones without government overreach. 

“It’s as if there’s a drunk person at our home at a party. And they’re going to try to leave. We don’t have to call the police. We can take care of this ourselves — let’s just take their keys, give them a ride home, give them a place to stay,” he argues. “Everyone accepts that moral duty now, and we need to get there with firearms. A random person can’t intervene, but someone they know, that’s different. People need to know how to go up to a loved one and ask that awkward question: ‘Are you thinking of hurting yourself?’”

There’s no guarantee that such efforts can stop a suicide, of course. It’s hard enough to just know when someone is struggling; a 2018 CDC study found that people without a known mental-health condition were nearly twice as likely to die from gun suicide than any other method. But if preliminary data out of Utah and New Hampshire is accurate, both states have so far avoided any suicide spikes. That’s a glimmer of great news in a traumatic year, and some small evidence that common-sense policies, supported by a strong coalition, can turn the tide. At the end, however, much of these policies simply work to show people that their best friend with a gun could use a check-in from time to time — and perhaps a way to keep their gun out of sight. 

Along those lines, Eliason tells me a story of going to visit a neighbor who had just purchased a 9mm pistol. He went into the kitchen and pulled the pink-hued gun out of a cabinet, in full view of his teenage son, Eliason says. “Well, I just happened to remember that his son has been having some struggles lately, so I just quickly mentioned that I had a new gun purchase, too,” he continues. “So I went out to my car and pulled out my biometric gun safe, told him why I bought him and quickly shared some statistics on teen gun suicide.” 

Maybe, a decade ago, Eliason wouldn’t have thought to say something. But his debates with Aposhian and Barber, and Utah’s efforts on broaching exactly this kind of talk, unlocked something. And he hopes that other efforts, in other states, can help shift a moment like the encounter in his neighbor’s kitchen. 

“Without me saying anything else,” Eliason tells me, “my neighbor turned to me and said, ‘Maybe I should store that gun in a different place. Maybe something like your safe.’”