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Gun Industry Warns Buyers About Suicide Risks, Critics Want More Action

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We reported yesterday on the show that two-thirds of gun deaths in the U.S. are the result of suicide. More than 21,000 Americans take their lives using a firearm every year. That's much higher than the number of homicides or deaths by mass shootings. For the first time, suicide prevention groups have started partnering with the gun industry, launching programs they hope will curb the violence. But the experiment is making some people nervous. Here's North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Picture a corporate training video, which is sort of what this is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WAYNE: Hi.

ROBIN BALL: Good morning.

WAYNE: I'm Wayne.

BALL: Hi, Wayne.

MANN: An older white guy enters a gun store looking nervous.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WAYNE: My wife and I have been doing some research and talking a lot about getting our first handgun.

MANN: The woman in the video, Robin Ball, is an actual gun store and shooting range owner in Spokane, Wash. She's acting out a conversation she wants more people in her industry to have with gun buyers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BALL: Something we don't often think about is suicide is not at an all-time low. It is a very tragic number.

MANN: In fact, suicide is rising. In 2016, the latest year there's good, reliable data, nearly 23,000 Americans shot themselves to death. Those most at risk are white men. For a growing number of people in gun culture, this is personal. They've seen friends die and family and customers. Robin Ball, the woman in the training video, told NPR that a man took his life with a firearm at her shooting range.

BALL: It is not something I ever want our staff to go through again.

MANN: Ball is part of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a big industry group. After the violence in her store, she joined their effort to educate gun show operators and retailers about suicide, about warning signs they should look for in customers before a firearm is sold.

BALL: I'll have an employee say, hey, the hair on the back of my neck is standing up. I don't want to do this transfer. It's like, OK then. We're not going to do it.

MANN: Stores can refuse to sell a gun. They also have information they can share with people who they think might be at risk, including suicide helpline numbers and advice for safely storing guns already in the home. The industry's main partner in this project is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. CEO Robert Gebbia says his organization set a national goal to stop the steady rise of suicide deaths and then cut it by 20 percent.

ROBERT GEBBIA: Unless you can do something about the numbers of people who die by suicide using a firearm, you really can't get to that 20 percent.

MANN: Roughly half the suicide deaths in the U.S. are caused by firearms. It's far and away the most lethal suicide method. Gebbia says his team spent a year negotiating with the gun industry, developing this pilot project. Their suicide materials are now distributed at gun shows, shooting ranges and retail stores.

GEBBIA: So they agreed to incorporate our information. It had more credibility, I think more acceptance. I think if we had walked into the gun shops, our volunteers - they might have been suspicious.

MANN: Given the number of gun suicide deaths, this experiment may sound modest. But the debate over guns and violence in America is really polarized, and this is a rare collaboration. Supporters hope voluntary education and outreach will save lives. Critics, meanwhile, say industry groups like the National Shooting Sports Foundation are doing the bare minimum, given the scale of the public health emergency. Erin Dunkerly is a suicide prevention activist whose father ended his life with a firearm in 2006.

ERIN DUNKERLY: I think it's window dressing. And I think it's a way for the NSSF to assure people that - don't worry, we're doing this nice work in the community.

MANN: Dunkerly points out that for the most part the industry hasn't embraced gun storage laws and other measures safety experts say might really cut America's suicide rate. These education programs are just a couple years old. There's little data so far to show whether they'll help cut the number of gun suicides. Brian Mann, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.