UW News

March 31, 2016

UW, gun-rights groups come together in new law to prevent suicide

News and Information

At its third annual annual education day Jan. 25, 2016, Forefront set up a memorial at the state capitol in Olympia, with markers for the 1,111 people who died of suicide in 2014.

At its third annual annual education day Jan. 25, 2016, Forefront set up a memorial at the state capitol in Olympia, with markers for the 1,111 people who died of suicide in 2014.Katie M. Simmons

After her husband ended his life with a bullet in 2011, Jennifer Stuber went to the two Washington stores where he had bought guns to talk with the owners about suicide prevention.

That bold move by Stuber, an associate professor at the University of Washington School of Social Work, eventually led to the passage of a bill signed into state law March 31 by Gov. Jay Inslee. The bill brings together two unlikely partners — the firearms industry and suicide prevention advocates — with pharmacists in an effort to curb suicide deaths.

The legislation was drafted in consultation with the National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment Foundation, a Washington gun rights group. Alan Gottlieb, the foundation’s executive director, said gun owners and retailers, some of whom have lost loved ones to suicide, have long been concerned about the issue but unsure how to address it.

“None of us know what to look for in warning signs that someone might be in the process of a suicide attempt,” he said. “This legislation is going to be good for our people, because this is information that they need.”

Stuber said the legislation succeeded largely because it involved the firearms industry from the start.

“The paradigm for so long has been one of war on this issue — not around suicide prevention, but gun rights in general,” said Stuber, the co-founder of Forefront: Innovations in Suicide Prevention, an organization based at the UW School of Social Work. “I think a key thing is both sides showed up at the table just being willing to listen.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

The legislation establishes a Forefront-led task force to develop suicide prevention messages and training for gun store owners and pharmacists. The task force will work with groups around the state to integrate suicide prevention education into existing initiatives, such as hunter safety training.

Additionally, a pilot program pairing suicide prevention and gun safety education with the distribution of safe gun storage devices and medication disposal kits will be implemented in two Washington communities with high suicide rates.

Pharmacists will be required to take a six-hour training course as part of their accreditation process, while gun dealers and gun range operators will be offered a voluntary online course. The task force will survey gun retailers to determine what incentives would make them most likely to participate. Gottlieb predicts broad buy-in from the firearms industry.

“I have not spoken to any gun retailer in Washington state that doesn’t want to be a part of this,” he said. “It’s in their interest to do it and they want to do it. People are very hungry for this.”

Nearly 80 percent of firearm deaths in Washington are suicides, and the state’s suicide rate is 14 percent higher than the national average. In 2014, 40 percent of suicides in the state involved firearms, while poisonings from prescription medications and other substances accounted for 19 percent.

Suicide was a risk that never occurred to Kathleen Gilligan. Her teenage son, Palmerston R.K. Burk, was a trained marksman who had taken the state’s hunter safety class and attended summer gun camps. Gilligan and her son went skeet shooting every week near their home on Vashon Island, and Palmer, as he was known, had been mentored by family members and friends who put a high priority on gun safety. Palmer’s uncle once commented to Gilligan, “Palmer is safer with a gun than any adult I know.”

But on Oct. 4, 2012, 14-year-old Palmer, upset over a girl, shot himself to death in front of the family’s home using a gun Gilligan had left unlocked. In an impulsive instant, her youngest child — the boy who loved swimming in Puget Sound, the star athlete, the one his friends looked to as a leader — was gone.

“Had I secured that one gun, he might not have done this,” said Gilligan, who moved to West Seattle after her son’s death, finding it too painful to see his friends growing up without him. “That’s part of my horror that I relive.”

Palmerston R.K. Burk

Palmerston R.K. BurkPhoto courtesy of Kathleen Gilligan

Gilligan is now active with Forefront and supports the new legislation. Something as simple as a poster on a wall in a gun store or a conversation with an informed gun range operator, she said, could make a critical difference.

“I firmly believe this is lifesaving information,” she said. “Had that seed been planted with me, I definitely would have been more vigilant.”

Stuber’s husband, a 40-year-old corporate attorney, ended his life in 2011 after struggling for months with depression and severe anxiety. Stuber turned her grief into action, forming Forefront, which has helped pass six suicide prevention laws over four years that require training for medical workers and prevention and response plans in middle and high schools.

A couple of years ago, Stuber began reaching out to firearms retailers and asking them if they worried about the possibility of selling a gun to someone who might be suicidal. Virtually every employee she spoke with, she said, answered yes. With some trepidation, Stuber called the National Rifle Association and Gottlieb’s group to enlist their help in reducing firearm suicides. To her surprise, they were willing to talk, and also listen.

“There’s real hurt,” she said. “Everybody showed up at the table willing to share their pain. This is an issue that impacts all of us.”

Forefront, the NRA and the Second Amendment Foundation met with groups including the Seattle Police Department and the Department of Fish and Wildlife over about six months to draft the language for the initiative. Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, the bill’s main sponsor, was instrumental in getting the legislation passed, Stuber said.

About 20 other states have taken steps to bring together suicide prevention advocates and gun owners, Stuber said, but none of those efforts are as broad as the Washington bill. Gottlieb thinks the initiative could become a successful model that can be replicated in other states.

“Lots of us in the firearms rights community have been concerned that a significant percentage of suicides involve lethal force,” he said. “If there’s a way to lower those numbers, it’s in gun owners’ interest to do that. To me, this is a no-brainer, but it took someone like Jenn to put it together.”