August 06. 2018 9:02AM

Beyond the Stigma: 'The next wave of gun safety'

By SHAWNE K. WICKHAM
New Hampshire Union Leader


Firearms safety instructor Bob Boilard holds a training gun in a classroom at his Manchester business, Defensive Strategies. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Ralph Demicco still remembers the “sinking feeling” nine years ago when he learned that three customers who had purchased guns from his Hooksett shop had used them to kill themselves — all unrelated deaths and all within a six-day period.

“It was just shocking,” he said.

In the years since, Demicco, former owner of Riley’s Sport Shop, has been part of a band of strange bedfellows dedicated to improving gun safety. The New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition has promoted trigger locks, and created a suicide prevention campaign for gun shops that has become a model for the nation.

Now they want to enlist firearms instructors to promote suicide awareness.

The coalition, which includes public health and firearms experts, put together a video for instructors to use in their classes. It depicts a despondent man whose wife has left him and taken his beloved dog. When family members come to his home to check on him, they convince him to let them hold onto his gun for a time — and to call a suicide hotline together.

The group hopes the video will prompt important conversations about gun safety.

Kenneth Norton, executive director of NAMI New Hampshire, calls the project “a terrific example of diverse groups finding common ground to work toward a common goal, in this case saving lives through suicide prevention efforts.”

He said he has no doubt that the past collaboration among gun shop owners and prevention advocates here has prevented suicide deaths.

Demicco, who retired and sold his shop in 2014, said he had a policy of refusing to sell firearms to individuals who appeared either substance-impaired or despondent. “We’ve always tried to do the right thing,” he said.

He’s never forgotten a woman who came in to his shop one Saturday morning many years ago. “She was extremely well dressed. She looked like she was a businesswoman on a business trip,” he recalled.

The woman didn’t make eye contact with him when she pointed to a handgun and said she wanted to buy it. “Are you sure you should be buying a gun?” he asked her gently, and she burst into tears.

The woman told him she had just been released from the state hospital, despite her professed fears that she would take her life if she went home alone. Demicco promised her he’d contact her doctor for help, and he made good on that promise.

He never heard what happened to the woman, and has always wondered. But he believes he saved her life that day.

And now he wants other gun owners to think about those around them who may need that kind of intervention. “I call it the friends and family approach,” he said. “I think this is going to be a more far-reaching and measurable approach to suicide prevention.”

Bob Boilard, a master firearm instructor and owner of Defensive Strategies in Manchester, said when Demicco approached him about getting involved in the project, he was quick to get on board. “If we can save lives and bring the numbers down, it’s always a good thing,” he said.

Boilard is national program director for the Second Amendment Foundation’s training division, which is incorporating suicide prevention in its classes nationwide. He said accidental deaths from firearms are at an all-time low, and he credits safety classes for that.

And now, he said, “It just makes sense that the next wave of gun safety would be suicide awareness, because two-thirds of all firearms deaths are suicides.”

Boilard, whose family has had its own experience with the tragedy of suicide, has been showing the NHFSC video in his classes. He said most of his students say they’ve never really thought about suicide prevention.

He’s hoping that will change.

The project encourages asking someone if they’ve been thinking about suicide, and offering to hold onto their firearms until the crisis is over. Boilard said he knows that’s not an easy ask. “You have to do it with a little finesse,” he said. “The big thing is showing them you do care about their life and you want them around.”

Demicco agreed this is “fragile territory.” But he said it can be as simple as letting someone know you’re worried about him. “You’re the one who can make the difference,” he said. “You’ve got to do this.”

Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that New Hampshire had the third-highest increase in the country in suicides from 1999 to 2016 (48.3 percent).

So far this year, through July 30, 158 people have killed themselves here; 74 of them used guns, according to data from the Office of the Medical Examiner.

That wasn’t an anomaly. Last year, there were 264 suicides in New Hampshire; 121 involved guns (46 percent). And in 2016, 122 of the 237 suicides involved guns (51 percent).

Elaine Frank, co-chair of the coalition, said firearms instructors have always focused on safety, so it’s a natural fit for them to help make gun owners more aware of precautions to take if they have friends and loved ones who might be suicidal. “That might include your 17-year-old kid who you’ve been taking shooting with you since he was a little tyke, and you’ve taught him all the safety stuff so he knows how to take care of a gun,” Frank said. “If he becomes suicidal and has access to your guns, it puts him at very high risk.”

Simple precautions can prevent a tragedy, she said. “The safest step to take is to actually remove the firearms from somebody’s house,” she said. Another is to increase the security with which they are stored, such as offering to keep the key or change the combination on someone’s storage box. And then there was this idea Frank heard from a veteran: “What if I put my grandchildren’s picture on the lockbox?”

Boilard said the coalition wanted to take a “non-legislative approach” to the issue, in contrast to the “red flag” laws that some states, including Massachusetts, have passed in response to mass shootings. Such laws allow family members to petition a judge for a protective order to remove guns from someone they believe is at risk of harming themselves or others.

But Boilard says that could actually prevent some people from seeking help during a mental health crisis, for fear that authorities will take their guns away.

Experts say most suicide attempts are spur of the moment decisions, and compassion and support can make a big difference in changing someone’s mind. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of reaching out to someone and showing that you care,” Boilard said.

Rik Cornell, vice president of community relations for the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester, praised the initiative as a “common sense approach.”

“If you see somebody in your family that’s despondent or desperate or moody, maybe that’s a time to pay attention to the guns and make sure they’re safe,” he said. “I think that’s good, responsible gun ownership.”

Cornell said this is a rare case where folks on all sides of gun issues can find common cause. “This is not about the right to have a gun; this is about saving people’s lives,” he said. “People that care about the Second Amendment want to save their friends’ lives just like everybody else.”

• The NH Firearm Safety Coalition and Defensive Strategies are co-hosting a kickoff event for the new suicide prevention campaign on Aug. 8 at the Bass Pro Shop in Hooksett starting at 7 p.m. Massad Ayoob, a nationally renowned firearm expert, is a guest speaker.

• For help: Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Beyond the Stigma, sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications, is funded by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, NAMI New Hampshire, and private individuals. Contact reporter Shawne K. Wickham at swickham@unionleader.com.