Gun shop owners making effort to prevent suicides

Gun shop owners making effort to prevent suicides

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CALEDONIA — It’s not business as usual anymore at Shooters Sports Center in Caledonia.

The popular shooting range, 4900 Six Mile Road, has been the scene of five suicides in the past seven years. The most recent occurred in May, when a 34-year-old South Milwaukee man rented a gun and shot himself in the head at the range.

“It was pretty jolting,” Mike Arts, the manager of Shooters, said. Arts added that the latest suicide made him think: “How or why does this happen? What can you do?”

In the past several months, the business has done something: Shooters has taken steps to help prevent another suicide from occurring, company officials said.

Shooters has started banning rentals to new customers who come alone, Arts said. Staff members also have begun monitoring the shooting range more closely, Arts added.

Additionally, wallet-sized cards for a suicide prevention hotline are now available on the range’s counter, Arts said.

“You hope what we’ve done keeps those people from even walking in here,” Arts said.

Proactive effort

The changes made at Shooters mirror pieces of a national program to curb gun sales to suicidal people called The Gun Shop Project.

The aim of the project is to help gun retailers prevent suicides by avoiding gun sales to people who show signs of being suicidal.

The project started in New Hampshire in 2009 after three people with no connection to one another bought firearms from the same store in less than a week and killed themselves within hours.

At least 10 states have Gun Shop Projects, according to Elaine Frank with the New Hampshire program. Dane County has begun the first program in Wisconsin through Safe Communities, a nonprofit group that works to reduce injuries.

Gun retailers are being urged to use extra caution in deciding whether to sell guns to people exhibiting signs they may be suicidal. The signs include having no knowledge about guns, showing no interest in learning about guns, not caring what kind of gun they purchase, mentioning a recent crisis, avoiding eye contract and appearing distraught.

Also, regular customers are being asked to store guns outside of their home if a loved one is struggling emotionally with job loss, legal trouble, a relationship break-up or other kind of crisis.

“Suicide is a very impulsive act,” said Cheryl Wittke, executive director of Safe Communities. “A critical component to prevent suicide is to reduce the access to lethal means.”

Safe Communities plans to launch the Gun Shop Project Tuesday in connection with the beginning of deer hunting season next weekend. Hunters naturally have guns, and many of them are middle-aged men, who have a relatively high risk of suicide, Wittke said.

She said the effort is part of a strategy to expand suicide prevention efforts beyond looking at why people take their own lives — often because of untreated depression or other mental health conditions — to examining how they do it, and reducing the opportunities.

Reducing the tally

Wisconsin had 874 suicides in 2015, 410 of them involving firearms, according to the state Department of Health Services. The year before, the state had 755 suicides, 348 involving guns.

Most of the shootings go unnoticed; a few make headlines. In October, state Sen. Rick Gudex, R-Fond du Lac, shot himself to death. His family said he was feeling “overwhelming depression and hopelessness.”

In Mount Horeb, a sheriff’s detective walked into Chuck Lovelace’s gun shop this spring and delivered unsettling news: A man who had bought a handgun at the shop a few days earlier used it to kill himself.

“My wife was devastated because she sold him the gun,” said Lovelace, owner of Essential Shooting Supplies. “It really opens your eyes.”

The man who killed himself didn’t display any signs of suicide, Lovelace said. But Lovelace and his staff have refused sales to people who “gave us bad vibes,” he said.

Losing a $300 gun sale can be hard on a small shop like his, Lovelace said. “But I’d rather eat ramen noodles and have peace of mind than eat steak and second-guess what we’re doing,” he said.

Mark Feldmann of The Journal Times contributed to this report.

“You hope what we’ve done keeps those (contemplating suicide) from even walking in here.”

— Mike Arts, manager Shooters Sports Center

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