The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded $2 million to researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder to study the role that gun retailers can play in suicide prevention.
This funding is supporting a three-year study of the Gun Shop Project, a national effort to prevent suicide. The project was launched in 2009 by a New Hampshire gun retailer after three of his customers committed suicide in one week.
Since then, the Gun Shop Project has spread to 21 states, including Colorado where 275 gun retailers participate so far.
“If we can really reduce suicides through this program, it’s important to document that, and understand what’s working and what’s not,” said study leader Sabrina Arredondo Mattson.
Arredondo Mattson said this research is more important now than ever, as suicide rates in the U.S. have risen by 35% in the last two decades, with white, male, working-age and older adults at the greatest risk.
Colorado has the seventh-highest suicide rate in the country, with nearly 1,300 suicides per year. For every one firearm homicide in Colorado, there are four suicides, Arredondo Mattson said.
Suicide is also linked to gun ownership. Having a gun in the home triples the odds of death by suicide because guns are more lethal than other means. In the U.S., half of all suicide deaths are from firearms.
This trend is especially concerning during the COVID-19 pandemic as firearm sales and mental health issues have both increased.
To help address firearm suicides, Arredondo Mattson is looking to the gun retail community.
“The firearm community has a very strong bond,” Arredondo Mattson said. “People don’t just go in to shop. They go in to hang out with the owners and managers and there is a lot of trust there.”
In Lakewood’s Bristlecone Shooting, Training and Retail Center, there is a bright orange sign that reads, “Gun owners, you can help! Putting time and distance between a suicidal person and a gun can help keep them safe.”
The shop owner Jacquelyn Clark also carries wallet cards of suicide hotlines and flyers of the “11th Commandment” of responsible gun ownership: “Consider temporary off-site storage if a family member may be suicidal.”
“I am uber conscious of the fact that we deal in something that can be dangerous in the wrong hands,” said Clark, who was one of the first gun retailers in Colorado to join the Gun Shop Project in 2014.
“It’s important that we provide resources for people and let our staff know it’s okay to have what could be difficult conversations.”
During the study, Arredondo Mattson will survey and interview project participants with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, National Shooting Sports Foundation, Colorado Firearm Safety Coalition and Firearm Safety Advisory Board.
She’ll then compare the suicide rates in counties with Gun Shop Projects to national rates to determine if the project decreases suicides.
Once the study is finished, the data could be used to refine the program and encourage other gun retailers to participate in it.
Correction: A press release from the University of Colorado Boulder incorrectly stated the amount of the grant from the CDC. The grant is $2 million, not $3 million. We have updated this article to reflect the change.