'This Is About Safety': Preventing Gun Suicides In Vermont

Aug 9, 2017

An analysis of gun deaths in Vermont over a six-year period showed that 89 percent of those deaths were suicides. Public health experts say they aren't surprised by that number and are trying to find ways to reduce it.

For the Gunshots project, VPR compiled a database of all gun deaths in the state between the beginning of 2011 and the end of 2016 using records from the Vermont Department of Health. The data show that 373 out of the 420 gun deaths in that period were suicides.

"We know that Vermont has historically pretty low homicide rates, but suicide rates have tended to be much higher than national averages," said Thomas Delaney, an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

Delaney studies suicide prevention and he said when he looks at this kind of data, he starts to think about prevention and "what should we be doing that we aren't doing?"

A big part of suicide prevention is keeping a person who is in a suicidal crisis safe during that time — like connecting them to mental health services and removing lethal means, like guns, from that person’s environment.

Delaney said the idea a person will just find another way to kill themselves is not true.

Thomas Delaney, an assistant professor at the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont, studies suicide prevention. He said that suicide rates in Vermont tend to be higher than national rates.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR

"So most of the people — and we know this from a few studies now — most of the people who survive even really serious attempts at taking their lives actually don't go on to die by suicide,” he said.

And because a suicidal crisis is often brief, Delaney said it's important that a person not have access to something that's really deadly — like a gun.

"A firearm's not really reversible," Delaney said. "Once you make that decision there's no opportunity to then go back, call 911 or call your counselor."

"All the time we're saying this isn't about gun rights — this is about safety," said Charlotte McCorkel, project director of integration at Howard Center in Burlington. She’s been helping the center integrate its three crisis hotlines into one line.

McCorkel says she talks about promoting safe access to guns, not reducing access, because access to guns can often become a political issue. But safety is something people can agree on regardless of politics.

"We don't want to offend the gun-owning community," she said. "We want to join with them because certainly no one wants a suicide death by firearm or by any means."

"All the time we're saying this isn't about gun rights — this is about safety." — Charlotte McCorkel, Howard Center

Promoting safe access to guns can take different forms. It might mean someone gives their gun to a friend or family member if they're going through a tough time or it could mean ensuring a gun is unloaded and locked away.

McCorkel says Howard Center clinicians carry gun locks to give away. The center also has free lockboxes for storing guns — and those go fast.

"So we keep a list of people who have requested them, so as soon as another shipment comes we can get them out," McCorkel said. "I believe over the past four years we've given away more than 300."

But McCorkel said what's really important is that everyone — doctors, mental health workers, state officials and gun owners — work together to talk about suicide prevention and gun safety.

One such program is called the Gun Shop Project. It's a collaboration between the state, the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center and the Vermont Suicide Prevention Coalition, as well the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen Clubs and Gun Owners of Vermont — both of which are Second Amendment advocacy groups.

The project aims to raise awareness about suicide prevention by distributing fact sheets to gun shop owners and posters with resources that can hang up in shops.

At Cragin's Gun Shop in Rutland, a big dog greets customers at the door. Two glass cases of handguns make up the counter and rifles line the wall.

John Cragin, the owner, said his shop mostly serves hunters, a detail made clear by the collection of taxidermy on the walls: six deer, two bears and a buffalo.

Cragin's Gun Shop in Rutland primarily serves hunters. Owner John Cragin said suicide is a tricky issue - but if he has any doubts about selling someone a gun, he won't make the sale.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR

Cragin said preventing suicide is tricky — he's not a trained professional, but he said he can choose who to sell a gun to.

"I had a lady come in one time and said 'I need a gun' and I said 'What do you want?' and she said 'Just something that'll do the job,'" Cragin said. "And I don't know if she was going to go shoot someone or if she was going to commit suicide — I don't know, but she didn't leave here with a gun. I have to sleep at night. I live in this community, I raised my son in this community."

And suicide isn't an abstract issue for Cragin — two of his good friends died by suicide and both used guns.

"That makes it harder for me because we're around them all the time ... That was their choice. It is what it is," he said.

"I would just [as] soon not sell the gun if there's any doubt at all." — John Cragin, Cragin's Gun Shop

Cragin says he got some information about the Gun Shop Project from the state.

"There were some suggestions in there, which we basically follow anyways," he said. "Again, if somebody's in here and they're just doom and gloom ... and if nothing else, we can stall them for a little while, give them a day or two and see. But I would just [as] soon not sell the gun if there's any doubt at all."

Having conversations about suicide is difficult, but McCorkel said it's important to find ways to bring these conversations about suicide prevention and gun safety into the open and for people to hear that message — and not only from public health officials.

"It's important to have role models giving the message who are part of the NRA [National Rifle Association] or who are gun shop owners or in law enforcement, who can say 'I'm part of this community and this is my practice and this is why it's important,'" McCorkel said.

She said hopefully these discussions will help someone see alternatives where they might not have seen any before.

Here are some resources if you or someone you know is considering suicide:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • Veterans Crisis Line & Military Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, Press 1
  • Crisis Text Line: 741-741
  • Vermont Suicide Prevention Center: http://vtspc.org/
  • In emergency situations, call 911.

Disclosure: Howard Center is a VPR underwriter.

VPR's Gunshots series explores the role of guns in life — and death — in Vermont through commentary, data and in-depth reporting.