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As isolation and gun sales both grow, experts urge gun owners to plan to prevent suicides

Brett Bass has spent the past few years traveling to gun shows and retailers across Washington, educating people on safe weapon and medicine storage and the importance of a mental health crisis plan as part of his work with the Safer Homes Suicide Aware program.

When the coronavirus pandemic took hold earlier this year, gun shows may have been canceled but life factors that contribute to suicide were plentiful.

“It’s unprecedented,” Bass said. “One of the most troubling things from the perspective of somebody that works in suicide prevention is lock everybody in their homes and hope for the best.”

People could be experiencing the psychological state of “perceived burdensomeness” because of circumstances caused by COVID-19, Bass said.

Perceived burdensomeness occurs when an individual views their existence as a burden to family, friends or society, according to the work of psychologist Thomas Joiner. This is often a “fatal misperception,” according to Joiner but some people may feel this way because they are unemployed or even because they are spending what they perceive as too much time on the phone seeking help from an unemployment specialist.

The second factor in Joiner’s theory is social alienation, which Bass said in this instance can involve removing someone from their routine social interactions.

Sabrina Votava, founder of Fail Safe for Life, a suicide-prevention organization in Spokane, said she initially saw people push to stay connected while self-isolating but that has since waned.

“There’s a lot of change. It’s turbulent, it’s chaotic,” Votava said. “And during that time I saw a lot of intention in people staying connected and reaching out. There was almost an influx for some people, for connection.”

But that slowed as stay-home orders continued.

“When we are isolating ourselves, it can be easy to fall into the habit of not connecting with others,” Votava said. “I would just encourage people to stay connected to the people who are in their circles.”

While Votava and others in suicide prevention work are concerned about the current social environment and its effect on people’s mental health, she said it’s too soon to have solid data.

“What I have been getting is mostly anecdotal, as far as feedback on what is happening in suicide prevention right now,” Votava said. “You can see a correlation, but it’s really hard to determine a cause.”

The third factor in Joiner’s theory of suicidal behavior is acquired ability – and it’s the one Bass works to combat. Acquired ability involves two elements, Bass said: having access to a firearm and harboring thoughts that indicate “you have reasoned with the idea of mortality.”

Bass said the ongoing pandemic has made that kind of reasoning almost unavoidable.

“There has been months of just talking about human death on a pervasive basis,” Bass said.

And concerns about how access to a gun can enable suicide is on the minds of some who otherwise advocate for their value.

“The risk with a firearm is it’s effective,” said Robin Ball, owner of Sharp Shooting Indoor Range and Gun Shop in Spokane. “That person doesn’t have the opportunity to change their mind and so, while we want an effective tool for what we want the tool for legitimately, that has to be a consideration for people.”

In March, among the run on toilet paper and hand sanitizer there was also a massive increase in gun and ammunition sales in the Spokane area.

“We’ve had a historic increase in firearms sales,” Bass said.

Along with increased sales, doctors recommended people stock up on their medications.

“Basically nobody disagrees that if misused a firearm is extremely dangerous,” Bass said. “There’s broad acceptance that firearm secure storage is important, but there’s this massive knowledge gap, or cultural norm, that we leave narcotics unlocked .”

Bass said it makes him especially nervous that many people have been motivated to buy a gun because “times are very unsteady right now.”

Business at Ball’s Spokane Valley shooting range has been booming. While Ball is trying to help the multitude of customers flooding in, customers have been less informed about their purchases and requiring more attention from staff.

“It was more time consuming in an environment where we needed to be spending less time with people,” Ball said. ”We found ourselves spending more time with people because they were not prepared and they hadn’t done a lot of research.”

At Sharp Shooting, Ball’s employees are all trained to help customers weigh the pros and cons of each platform and discuss what training or storage options will work for that specific customer.

Ball has worked with Safer Homes for years, developing resources and courses for firearms retailers to help keep suicide prevention at the forefront.

About six years ago, a young man from the Philippines who was attending school in the area came into Ball’s shop and rented a gun to shoot on the range. He had been in before, often with his uncle. This time he wanted to shoot something new. Something that he had never shot before.

“He wasn’t a regular, but he was someone we knew,” Ball said.

The man chatted with the employee who checked him in for about 15 minutes before heading out to the range, where he killed himself.

“The timing was pretty intentional for him because he waited until the range was nearly cleared,” Ball said.

The suicide occurred on the same day of Liberty Lake Police Sgt. Clint Gibson’s funeral, who also died by suicide.

Since the death, it has become even more important for Ball’s employees to watch for warning signs, especially with a group of new customers who made pandemic purchases.

“We’re just always watching people,” Ball said. “It’s a batch of new customers in our facility and in a normal cycle it’s more common that we know somebody who walks in the door than don’t. This is not a normal cycle.”

Ball recalled one instance when a man came up to the shop door then turned around and walked away, then came back, then walked away again. He repeated the process nearly a dozen times.

“I mean once you’d think he forgot something in his car. Twice is like, ‘Wow, he really forgot something in his car,’” Ball said. “Third time it’s like, ‘OK, what’s going on here?’”

The employee who chatted with the customer was a former military member and when the customer eventually asked to use the shooting range, Ball’s employee was very direct.

“He said, ‘Who can I call to come get you? I think that you need to take the day off from shooting,’” Ball recalled.

The customer asked the employee to call his mom. A regular customer who is a mental health counselor overheard the interaction and stepped in while the employee called the man’s mother. The mother called Ball a few days later and thanked them for stepping in.

When a customer purchases their first firearm or a new type of firearm, they will usually take a training course. But that has not been possible during the pandemic.

Suicide prevention has become a part of some widespread training curriculum, Ball said. The state of Utah’s concealed firearm permit training includes a suicide prevention aspect, which Ball teaches frequently. A Utah concealed firearms permit is valid in 33 states, which makes it popular among gun owners.

In the class required by Initiative 1639, which mandates specific training requirements to purchase a semiautomatic assault rifle, Ball said the suicide prevention portion of the training is well conceived.

“There’s nothing about that class I like except for the suicide prevention part of it,” Ball said with a laugh.

One piece of data both Ball and Bass said many gun owners are often shocked to learn is that the vast majority of firearm-related deaths in the United States are due to suicide.

About 60% of gun deaths in the U.S. were suicide related, while 37% were murder, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.

In Washington state, more than half of all suicides were firearm-related from 2010 to 2017, according to a Spokesman-Review analysis of state death records. Suicides also made up 78% of gun deaths during the same time period.

Ball said in recent months the pandemic experience has not led to an uptick in suicide by new gun buyers. But it has led to more awareness.

“I think all of those triggers are causing people to feel insecure and wanting to have some form of self-defense,” Ball said. “I haven’t really felt like I’ve dealt with anybody in the store that’s questionable other than from a safety standpoint, where I have to walk that back a little bit.”

The majority of gun owners nationwide said in the same Pew study that the major reason they own a gun is for protection.

Safer Homes is offering an online gun safety course next month for those who haven’t been able to take a course in person.

Bass would encourage gun owners and buyers to put the same amount of effort into a mental health crisis plan as they would a home protection plan.

“Think about suicide prevention with the same degree of seriousness that you would think about home defense,” Bass said.

A mental health crisis plan isn’t just for the gun owner themselves but for the household as a whole, Bass said.

“In the event that you are no longer in the right mental space for a firearm, you should find someone else to hold onto it for you or control access,” Bass said.

Finding a person they trust ahead of time and thinking about the possibility of their mental state changing can make it easier to ask for help if the time comes, Bass said. It also can make it easier for family and friends to intervene if they think a loved one should not have access to a firearm due to a mental health crisis.

“It’s not today. It’s getting them to think about what happens in five years if my dad is diagnosed with a terminal illness and what happens to his mental health? What if in the course of COVID somebody is drinking too much and is depressed and isolated?” Ball said. “How do you deal with storage for those people at that point? Because it may not have been a problem weeks or months before.”

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