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As I drove southwest from the Washington, D.C. suburbs, into rural Virginia, the Christmas music station on my radio faded to Fox news, and then to an oldies station, real oldies, 1950s.
I was on my way to Staunton, Va., to interview a man I suspected was particularly brave.
Back in 2002, Adrian Stacy put a gun to his own head. This evening, he’d agreed to talk to me about why and what happened afterward.
Around me the foothills of the Appalachians stretched to the horizon, beautiful in the fading light. A car swung in front of me on 81. The license plate read: “Hunt Elk.”
This was gun country.
But this part of Virginia throws out a genteel image of guns: Sport and hunting guns, guns in lockboxes, lovingly passed down from parents to children along with gun safety lessons and a tradition of Saturday shooting at the range.
These are the guns that most everyone in America thinks they can live with. But the hard truth at the center of America’s relationship with guns is that while we like to believe we are in the most danger from guns in the hands of others — criminals and madmen — we are actually most in danger from guns in our own hands.
Suicide strikes many more people than any other kind of gun violence: Two-thirds of the people who die by gun, die in a suicide. Some 70% of the 47,000 people annually taken by suicide are white men.
The Stonewall Jackson Inn
Adrian Stacy was almost one of them. Sitting across from me in the lobby restaurant of the Stonewall Jackson Inn, which is swathed in bright Christmas decorations and busy with parties, he sits straight as the lobby’s tall tree, his hands folded in atop the table. His long brown hair is tied into a ponytail.
The child of divorced parents, he was living with his mother and stepfather, a truck driver who was away most all the time. When his mother landed in the hospital for an extended stay, it fell to Adrian to take care of his younger sister. He was 15, and she was 8. Child protective services heard about it, and took her to a foster family.
“I felt like I failed her,” he said.
His mother taught him how to handle a gun, and he liked to take the family’s guns out of a lockbox, clean them and look at them. One night he sat on his bed, holding one of the handguns. He turned the music up, so no one would hear.
He raised the gun to his head. “I was wondering, would anybody miss me?”
He didn’t have many friends at school, but he did have one friend, down the street, Gary.
Gary walked in the house. Hearing the music, he headed back to Stacy’s bedroom and opened the door. He pulled the gun out of Stacy’s hand just as the hammer cocked back.
“He snatched that thing out of my hand,” Stacy says now. “He saved a life that night.”
The Gun Culture Wars
Suicides are an afterthought for gun control groups and a subject only gently broached by gun rights groups (the NRA rarely mentions it in its media, though the group has gun safety programs. The National Shooting Sports Federation funds suicide prevention programs, though to some controversy). Suicides and firearms have only begun to be a focus in the public health world in the past decade. Ralph Fascitelli, the co-founder of a smart gun company called Lodestar, harshly condemns the leading suicide nonprofits. (One of the benefits of a smart gun that worked – say, one with a biometric lock – would be to make it harder for teen-agers to use a gun for suicide._
“I am a progressive but how we can on the left blame the conservatives for not addressing gun deaths when the two leading suicide non-profits (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the American Association of Suicidology) are ignoring the issue of guns, which represent the majority of suicide deaths. I presume the suicide groups will deny this vociferously, but here’s the evidence which is nowhere near commensurate with the impact of guns on issue:
- minimal mention of guns on website page and in social media…
- minimal if any partnerships with leading gun safety groups despite the linkage
- minimal research or programs on guns and suicide”
Suicide is, of course, deeply stigmatized – not just suicide by gun. Talking about it goes against a deep cultural and religious taboo, one of our deepest. Guns complicate the issue. While experts think the best way to cut the suicide rate is to limit access to guns, that idea runs smack into the middle of America’s ferocious gun rights debate.
“The nation (is failing) to make suicide conversations discussions about firearms and firearm discussions conversations about suicide, said Michael Anestis, associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi.
“The single greatest tool we have to reduce the national suicide rate involves making firearms less accessible for suicide attempts,”
“Red flag” laws are one of the new frontlines in the political war. They enable police to petition the court to take weapons away from people who pose a danger to themselves or others. But there’re most often mentioned in the context of mass shootings or domestic violence.
The Grassroots Movement
In 2009, a suicide analyst for the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services discovered that in the course of less than one week, three people, not acquainted with one another, bought a gun from the same gun shop and killed themselves.
Ralph Demicco was stunned. The owner of Riley’s Sport Shop in Hooksett, N.H., hadn’t heard anything about it, and considering his range a model of gun safety, he was deeply troubled.
An ad hoc committee formed, including Demicco, made up of people from the more practical-minded parts of the gun community: firearms safety instructors, gun shop and gun range owners, and public health and suicide prevention experts.
The group called themselves The Gun Shop project, which provides training and media to people in the gun community about suicide and encourages them to temporarily take a friend’s gun away if he or she seems to be in danger.
They designed the program off what the evidence shows about suicide in America.
- The most commonly used methods of attempting suicide, pills and sharp instruments, result in death in 2% of episodes, compared with the attempts when firearms are used, which succeed 83-90% of the time. A gun is highly effective means to carry out a fleeting suicidal impulse: For example, 24% of people who made a nearly lethal attempt said that less than five minutes elapsed between deciding on suicide and attempting, according to one study.
- If you can interrupt a suicide attempt, you are likely to save a person’s life – for good. All the evidence suggest that in almost every case, suicide is a temporary mental illness. Among people who attempt suicide and survive, 90% do not go on to kill themselves. This is even true for people making nearly fatal attempts, according to the research.
The effort has spread to 22 states, where there are coalitions of doctors, public and mental health professionals and gun shop owners and firearms instructors with training and materials to hand out if they suspect someone is in trouble. In Virginia, where Adrian Stacy heard about it, it’s called Lock and Talk.
There has been a slow culture shift in gun businesses around the country, several have told me. One gun range in Colorado won’t rent to a first-time customer who comes in alone – unless a friend or relative can vouch for the person’s mental state by phone. The range, Bristlecone Shooting, Training & Retail Center, instituted the policy after someone killed himself in the middle of the range.
It’s hard to tell if they have succeeded. The suicide rate has risen in the United States. It’s hard to prove a negative: Are there people who would have killed themselves if it hadn’t been for a conversation or if hadn’t been harder to rent or buy a gun?
In the United States, where there are between 300-400 million guns in civilian hands, truly limiting access is hard.
In Israel (another heavily armed society), according to Anestis, one small-scale effort worked. After the Israeli Defense Force saw a spike in young soldiers killing themselves, it changed the rules so that soldiers couldn’t bring their firearms home for the weekend. The suicide rate dropped.
Demicco, who retired from his gun business after 40 years, said the movement has deliberately stayed as neutral and grassroots as possible.
“If it became part of the political debate it would mean legislation,” he said. That would be anathema to him, and probably many of the other range owners and gun dealers. He said any movements to take guns away would run afoul of civil liberties concerns (it’s very hard to predict who will kill themselves); Constitutional concerns among gun owners and even concerns, he said, over privacy in the health care community.
He believes there has been a slow culture shift, so that more people in the gun community are willing to talk about the taboo subject of suicide. “We’re asking a lot in terms of the old way of thinking,” he said. “The gentlemen I know do not talk about these things. A lot of them are not ‘new age.’”
Growing Up With A Shadow
After Gary intervened the night Adrian Stacy almost killed himself, Stacy’s dad came from near Virginia Beach to pick him up. But Stacey never talked about what had almost happened that night. “There was a lot of self-reflection,” he said. “The amount of pain I’d caused him – I felt so ashamed of my actions.”
He his father to bone cancer in 2004.
After he graduated from high school, he joined the military and became an automotive technician. A back injury left him unable to work, but he got a job at a pawn shop that sells guns.
The suicide attempt remained a part of him, entwined with the pain of losing his dad. “It got bottled up so bad,” he says.
His girlfriend, Logan, now his fiancée, lost an uncle, Guy Shifflett, to suicide. She encouraged Stacy to go to the Out of the Darkness Walk for Suicide prevention. Seeing so many people who’d been through their own mental health crises enabled him to start talking about what had happened. “There were so many people with so many different stories,” he said. “I thought to myself, I cannot be ashamed of this.”
He met Rebecca Textor, who founded Virginia Lock and Talk, who told him about the program, which provides free cable gun locks, pamphlets and a poster that asks, “Concerned about a family member or friend?”
He wanted to help people who are in the midst of a crisis, and help people speak up more about what’s going on inside them. “Firearms are not the issue,” he said. “It’s a question of what keeps people safe.”
Some of the pamphlets have been picked up.
He also volunteered to be in a video, which he was nervous about. “Suddenly I’ve got cameras pointing at me … it’s very difficult to talk about.”
“I’m 16 years a survivor … involving a firearm,” he says in the video. “I’ve been given another shot at being a better person … and helping people heal.”
He looks up from the table where we’re sitting, nodding to a woman in a group of carolers that have wandered in, and I thought about how high the stakes are in a small community, where everybody knows everybody.
Stacy said he was happy that the video is running at the local mental health center, also a part of Virginia Lock & Talk. “The patients look at me when I walk in and say, “Hey, he’s the guy on the TV,” he says. “That makes me feel good.”
December 30, 2018 at 10:31PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs