It was Ladies Night at one of the biggest gun clubs in Colorado and women sporting pony tails, running shoes and high-heeled sandals talked over gourmet cheese and miniature cupcakes before taking turns to shoot.
Among those attending the twice–monthly gathering at Centennial Gun Club was Dr. Emmy Betz, an emergency room physician at UCHealth’s University of Colorado Hospital. She co-founded the Colorado Firearm Safety Coalition, a group that has teamed up with the gun club to host information sessions during Ladies Night.
Until a couple of years ago, Betz had never held a gun, much less fired one or hung out at a gun shop and range.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255); Veterans: Press 1
Crisis Text Line: Text HELLO to 741-741
But, as part of her work, Betz researches suicide and works on prevention. Every year, suicide attempts lead to nearly 400,000 trips to hospital emergency departments across the United States and there’s one very striking fact about suicides that has led public health experts like Betz to build new bridges in recent years with gun owners and enthusiasts.
When people die of suicide, half use guns.
Health experts know that suicide is preventable. If people can get help when they’re considering suicide, chances are very good that they can move beyond their torment. Of those who survive an attempt, only 10 percent go on to die by suicide, Betz says.
But guns are especially lethal, so death rates are much higher among those who attempt suicide with guns compared to those who use other methods.
New partnerships between health experts and gun owners highlight themes that resonate with both.
“Safety is the No. 1 tenet,” Betz says. “Nobody wants to lose a family member.”
In 2009, a New Hampshire gun shop owner became deeply disturbed after learning that in a single week, three customers purchased guns at his store, then almost immediately killed themselves. He hatched the idea to partner with health officials and display suicide prevention materials in gun shops.
Since then, similar efforts have grown in 20 states from Utah to Nevada and Colorado. And earlier this year, two leading national organizations — the National Shooting Sports Foundation, representing gun shop owners and dealers, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention — teamed up to launch a national education campaign aimed at saving lives.
Betz and Dick Abramson, president and CEO of the Centennial Gun Club, traveled to the Shot Show in Las Vegas, the largest trade show of its kind, to support the new campaign. With them were other members of the Colorado Firearm Safety Coalition, including a firearms instructor and Sarah Brummett from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
When health officials first approached Abramson about suicide prevention, he immediately embraced them.
He knew that open discussions about suicide were key. The numbers are striking.
Of all firearms-related deaths in the U.S., two-thirds are the result of suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Colorado, the figures are even higher with nearly eight in 10 gun deaths resulting from suicide.
“To me it’s a huge responsibility,” Abramson said. “Suicide prevention is part of gun safety.”
Abramson sponsors extensive safety courses and promotes safe storage of all guns.
“We try to raise awareness about how powerful these handgun rounds are,” he said in a training room at his facility that looks like a home. “Each bullet can pass through two internal walls, then leave the house.”
Abramson counsels his employees not to sell guns to anyone if they have even the slightest concern that the customer is distraught and might hurt themselves or others. He’d rather turn away a potential customer than sell to anyone who might harm themselves or others.
Stigma still prevents many people from talking openly about suicide, but Abramson and Betz now are good friends who work closely together. Before Ladies Night, Abramson and his wife hosted the Colorado Firearm Safety Coalition’s monthly meeting in a classroom at the gun shop.
Then, the public health experts made a presentation as women prepared to shoot.
Betz told the women that many suicides are “very impulsive.”
“We want to put time and space between someone who’s having a tough time and a gun,” Betz said.
She has come to view guns and suicide like drunk driving in that friends and family members can look out for each other. When people have too much to drink, friends hang on to their keys, give them rides or set them up with Uber. Similarly, friends and family members can help keep people safe when they’re depressed or otherwise at risk of suicide. That may mean ensuring that guns are locked up or safely stored with a friend or relative during tough times. Many facilities like Centennial Gun Club also rent lockers for safe storage.
Betz tells the women that it’s critical for them to keep an eye on the children, teens and men in their lives.
“In Colorado, we have some of the highest suicide rates in the country. We have tough individuals, who say, ‘I’m not going to ask for help.’”
Women can guide men toward great programs like Man Therapy, which can help men cope with depression. In addition, mothers need to think carefully about kids.
“When we think about suicide, no one wants to think that their kids would do that. We think of locking up guns when kids are little munchkins. But with teens, we know their brains are not working right,” Betz says, eliciting knowing laughter from moms in the room.
“If someone is having a tough time, lock up the guns. Put time and space between them,” she says.
Teaming up with Betz is Carl LoFaro, a social worker and military veteran who manages the Veterans and Military Family Services program at the Jefferson Center for Mental Health.
He cites grim statistics showing that each day, about 20 veterans kill themselves across the U.S. When men come to him for help, often a woman has brought them.
“Suicide is a means to an end. (Men) feel a problem would be solved if they were gone,” LoFaro said. “Imagine the worst day of your life. They’re just reacting differently.”
He advises women to keep an eye out for warning signs.
“If you’re the shooter in your house and your husband, son, brother or teen seems really interested in your firearm and wants to know how it works, they may see it as a tool,” LoFaro said. “People struggling with mental illness also may be using drugs or alcohol and that causes increased impulsivity. That’s an emergency. Call 911. Police are more than happy to respond before a shooting and before a suicide.”
LoFaro said the new bridges between health experts and gun enthusiasts are critical and late in coming. Next door to the Jefferson Center is a school where gunsmiths learn how to make and repair guns. When he walked over to say hello, he learned that no one from the mental health center had ever visited before.
“Mental health people are afraid of guns and gun people are afraid of mental health, but no one wants anyone to shoot themselves,” he said.
After the suicide prevention presentation, a woman named Myra said it resonated with her. She arrived at Ladies Night looking fearless in a bright pink tee shirt with a Supergirl logo. Her dad was a police officer, but Myra has never shot before. She’s come with a friend who’s celebrating her birthday.
Myra is going through a divorce and has an 8-year-old son. When she and her husband began having problems, he was severely depressed.
“It was a very low point in his life. I was afraid to leave him,” she said.
But she did exactly what Betz and other health experts advise people to do. She openly asked her husband if he was considering suicide.
“I’m not afraid to ask. My cousin attempted suicide and my brother has attempted suicide three times. I knew he needed help.”
She found a day program at a mental health facility where her husband could get intensive counseling. Myra reaffirmed that people cared about him.
“As the father of my child, I don’t want him to die,” she said. “Our son is crazy about his dad. Even though he’s feeling weak right now, he knows he has a little boy who loves him.”
Myra sometimes feels unsafe and is considering getting a gun for protection. She likes the idea of guns that require fingerprints to unlock them. Her dad always kept his service weapon locked up and far away from his children. Myra says she would do the same.
“I would be obsessed with safety.”