WASHINGTON – A suicide prevention organization based at the University of Washington partnered with the National Rifle Association and other gun-user organizations to launch a state-wide program in Washington aimed at safe firearm storage to cut suicide rates.
The SAFER HomesSuicide Aware campaign has appeared at several gun shows in various Washington locations since its launch in 2017, talking to attendees and distributing about 600 free firearm-locking devices, with plans to expand these activities, Jennifer P. Stuber, Ph.D., said at the annual conference of the American Association of Suicidology.
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Dr. Jennifer P. Stuber
The idea behind SAFER Homes came from recognition that a majority of suicides are caused by firearms, a majority of deaths from firearms are suicides, and that a potentially effective way to cut suicide numbers is by restricting unauthorized or unintended firearm access, especially to middle-aged men, said Dr. Stuber, a health policy researcher at the University of Washington, Seattle, and founder and policy director of Forefront Suicide Prevention, a social impact organization operated by the university’s school of social work. SAFER Homes also came into being as Dr. Stuber realized that she had a receptive audience on the issue of safe gun storage to prevent suicides among gun owners, gun retailers, and gun-rights proponents.
“There is remarkably little push back. These are folks who care about suicide. Seventy percent of gun-shop owners have experienced a personal suicide loss, and shop owners don’t want to be the one who sells someone a gun who then uses it to end their life,” Dr. Stuber said in an interview.
The Second Amendment Foundation gun-rights organization has been the main partner with Forefront Suicide Prevention in launching SAFER Homes Suicide Aware, but the campaign also received endorsement from the National Rifle Association. Dr. Stuber also worked with the Second Amendment Foundation and the National Rifle Association to get legislation passed in Washington to expand education on suicide prevention through improved gun safety. Dr. Stuber became an advocate for suicide prevention and safer gun storage following the firearm suicide of her husband in 2011, an experience she wrote about in a 2016 essay.
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Dr. Jeffrey C. Sung
Preventing suicide through safer storage of firearms makes sense because the U.S. demographic subgroup with the highest number of suicides is men 35-64 years old. In this subgroup, the majority of those killed by suicide were never identified as depressed or having a mental health problem, and more than 80% never had a prior suicide attempt, said Jeffrey C. Sung, MD, a psychiatrist at the University of Washington who has worked with Dr. Stuber on the SAFER Homes campaign. He cited a study of 310 suicides among patients in the Veterans Health Administration system (93% men, 76% aged 50 years or older) that showed 72% reported having no suicide ideation on the most recent health questionnaire prior to their suicide (Psych Services. 2016 May;67:517-22).
Because men like these do not come to clinical attention prior to their suicide, the best preventive strategy is to focus on improved safety measures to control potential means of lethality, said Dr. Sung, who is also immediate past president of the Washington State Psychiatric Society.
SAFER Homes “goes to community-based settings, like gun shows, where men in their middle years can be reached,” Dr. Stuber noted. By talking about taking steps to reduce the risk of firearm suicide with attendees at gun shows and with gun retailers, “you’re pushing on an open door,” Dr. Sung added.