Advocates of the rights to own guns and those who want to restrict the laws governing them are often on opposing sides of the conversation. But many find a common voice when it comes to reducing gun violence. In New Hampshire, gun shop owners are forging ties with mental health experts to prevent the most frequent kind of death by firearms: suicide.
You see two types of buyers at the Wildlife Sports shop in Manchester:
Those who drop in quickly to pick up fishing gear like ice drills, rods and bait.
They don’t usually need much help — or scrutiny. And then there are the customers who require a little more of the store’s attention because they’re buying, for example, a compact, 1911 style handgun.
"We watch our customers almost from the minute they walk into the firearm side of the store. How they act. Are they protecting their family?"
That’s John Yule, the store’s manager. He says he always asks his customers why they’re buying a gun, and sometimes he won’t sell them one.
"People have come in angry about being robbed, angry about a situation at home. We don’t want people doing things spur of the moment which could make them regret it later."
Yule’s store is one of about half of the close to 70 gun shops in the state that are part of the New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition.
The gun shops agree to display posters and pamphlets that explain the warning signs of a suicidal person. A few of them meet with mental health specialists, public health advocates and legislators to exchange ideas. Elaine Frank directs the program and visits the gun shops that participate. She says the state has a relatively low homicide rate. But of the 290 reports of gun violence deaths between 2008 and 2010, 93 percent were from suicides.
"That’s not because people with guns are more suicidal. It’s that a suicidal person with a gun is far more likely to die by suicide."
Frank says background checks do nothing to prevent a mentally ill person from shopping for a gun. But gun store owners can refuse to sell one to certain customers.
"So if someone has no knowledge about guns, and doesn’t have any interest in learning about them, that’s a sign. Obviously, if they don’t care what kind of gun they buy or they make a comment like I don’t need much ammunition. I won’t have this gun for long."
Not all gun shops are joining this suicide prevention coalition.
Store manager John Yule says he understands their resistance:
"The first thing that jumped into my mind was that this was a liberal attempt to grab guns. But I kept listening. It was made clear early on, this was not about whether you can or can’t buy guns. It was about keeping guns away from a particular type of vulnerable person that would hurt themselves."
That brings up the obvious question: can you really prevent suicides by taking away guns?
"I think a gun makes it’s easier. It’s easier than other means of taking your life."
That’s Diane McEntee. She runs a support group for Survivors of Suicide Loss in Merrimack. It’s a role she never would have imagined for herself before September 24th, 2001.
"My son had experienced depression. I received a call at work that he was in my driveway with a gun, waving it around. I called the police and sped home to find out it was too late. And my life and the lives of my family members will never be the same again."
Many argue that a person who wants to die will find a way.
And program director Elaine Frank says she doesn’t want gun shop owners — or anyone else— to feel responsible for a suicide.
But she also points out that suicidal moments are often short-lived.
"Many, many people are ambivalent. They’re ambivalent about living and they’re ambivalent about dying. And those are the ones whose deaths we can prevent."
Since the tragedy in Newtown, other states — like Maryland and Tennessee —are taking the lead from New Hampshire to launch their own collaboration with gun shops.
And as Diane McEntee says, they may not prevent many suicides, but they may stop one.