UW News

September 5, 2017

Gun dealers, suicide-prevention advocates partner to save lives

UW News

Forefront Suicide Prevention is kicking off its Safer Homes Suicide Aware campaign on Sunday.

Forefront Suicide Prevention is kicking off its Safer Homes Suicide Aware campaign on Sunday.


With 80 percent of firearms deaths in Washington related to suicide, the scenario isn’t hard to imagine: A person thinking of ending their life enters a gun store to buy the means to do it.

Unfortunately, other scenarios play out, as well: A person filling a lethal dose of a prescription medication at a pharmacy. Or showing signs of depression at a doctor’s visit, without a screening for suicide risk.

In each case, there is an opportunity to prevent a death. Under the Safer Homes Suicide Aware campaign, led by Forefront Suicide Prevention at the University of Washington School of Social Work, and the Second Amendment Foundation, health care providers, gun dealers, firearm safety instructors and pharmacists can receive training in how to recognize and respond to suicide warning signs.

If you need help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.

The campaign, to be launched in the Grays Harbor community of Aberdeen on World Suicide Prevention Day, Sept. 10, is the product of a years-long effort by multiple – and disparate – interest groups to legislate and fund outreach and training programs to prevent suicide. From gun stores to hospitals, pharmacies to schools, the Safer Homes project aims to protect and educate people in a variety of settings.

And in offering training for gun dealers and piloting the distribution of firearm locking devices and safety cases, the campaign is believed to be the first to have been produced with the help of firearm-rights advocacy groups.

Forefront co-founder Jennifer Stuber, a UW associate professor of social work, said Safer Homes aims to change the discussion and behavior around suicide, to treat it as a public health issue.

Nationwide, the rate of suicide has increased over the past 15 years, especially among adolescent girls and middle-aged men. In 2015, there were 13.3 deaths per 100,000 people (of all ages) across the country; in Washington state, the rate was 15.6 per 100,000. Firearms were the leading cause of suicide, representing more than half of all deaths nationally, and a little more than half in Washington.

If the community approached suicide prevention like the proactive, “buckle up” seat belt campaigns of yesteryear, Stuber said, more people might be saved.

“We’re pushing for a big behavior change. Let’s lock up our guns pre-emptively to protect our families and ourselves, through the lens of suicide prevention,” said Stuber, whose husband took his own life in 2011.

Forefront worked with the Second Amendment Foundation and firearm advocacy groups on ways to promote a prevention message without encroaching on some gun owners’ desire to have ready access to a firearm for self-defense, Stuber said. Free giveaways of locking safety cases, in which the firearm can be worn on one’s person, is one such example. The collateral materials and the availability of the locking devices represent a joint effort to respect everyone’s goals while uniting around a common cause.

Home safety also extends to access to medications – how they’re stored and how to dispose of them, Stuber said. As of July, all pharmacists, upon renewal of their licenses, are required to take a suicide-prevention training developed by Forefront, the Washington State Pharmacy Association, and the UW and Washington State University pharmacy programs. The training for health care providers, known as All Patients Safe, will soon be underway.

By discussing suicide openly as a mental health issue, people can make more conscious decisions about making their homes safer to prevent suicide and helping someone they know who is struggling, Stuber said. Just as with other health conditions that can be mitigated or prevented, education could make a huge difference in suicide. Everyone, she said, has a role to play in suicide prevention.