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Engaging Gun Shop Owners in Preventing Mass Shootings and Suicides

April 13 2016

Concerned about a family member or friend suicide prevention poster
Concerned about a family member or friend?
Part 1: Preventing Mass Shootings

Gun shop owners may be the next line of defense in nationwide efforts to stop mass shootings and suicides. Though this seems an unorthodox and possibly contradictory approach to solving gun-related deaths in the U.S., a recent incident in Ohio and a program launched in 2011 aim to change both the attitudes of shop owners and the perceptions of the public.

On March 21, 2016, gun shop owner John Downs made a decision at his Logan, Ohio store that police believe likely prevented a possible mass shooting at Ohio University (OU) in Athens. James Howard, a 25-year old who had withdrawn from his classes at OU earlier that day, stopped into Downs’ Bait & Guns store looking to purchase a gun. Although he passed the background check, Downs said, "Just the look in his eye... there was something about him. I don't know. You really can't explain it. He was going to do something. He was going to do something."

It was that look and the feeling Downs had that led him to deny Howard the purchase of a gun or ammunition. Howard left but returned later. Downs locked his store door, hid his customers in a back room, and asked one to call 911. Howard was picked up a short time later at a nearby Walmart with a gun in the backseat of his car and almost 50 rounds of 20-gauge shot gun shell ammunition ready to purchase. The Athens County prosecutor stated, “Howard was found in possession of a firearm while allegedly being drug dependent or in danger of becoming drug dependent. The firearm was purchased after he allegedly made a false statement on his background check form." Howard also has a history of mental health issues and is being held on $125,000 bond.

According to Dr. Gene Deisinger, Managing Partner for Sigma Threat Management Associates and retired Deputy Chief of Police and Director of Threat Management Services at Virginia Tech University, a number of colleges and universities across the country routinely engage with local gun store owners as part of their overall threat management strategy. After this latest incident, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to anticipate more reaching out to local stores to increase engagement and potential partnerships.

Part 2: Preventing Suicides

This is not the first time gun store owners have been faced with tough decisions. In 2009, a gun store owner was tragically connected to three suicides during one week in three small towns in southwest New Hampshire. Each person had purchased a gun at his store, then the oldest and largest gun shop in New Hampshire, and committed suicide a few hours later. None of the clerks had noticed any red flags and all three had passed background checks. Owner Ralph Demicco wondered if there was anything he and his staff could have done to prevent such a tragedy from occurring or to prevent another one in the future.

Two years later, after meeting with pro-gun organizations, suicide prevention advocacy groups, and public health professionals, the Gun Shop Project was launched. This project, managed by the New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition, aims to educate staff at gun stores and firing ranges about how to spot potentially suicidal customers, and avoid selling or renting them a firearm. A variety of educational materials are available including a brochure, posters, tips sheets for dealers (PDF) and range owners (PDF), and a video on suicide prevention and the role of gun shops and ranges. Materials can be adapted to work in different states or with different organizations.

The project has the support of nearly half of all New Hampshire gun shops, but results have been slower nationwide, although interviews with gun store owners in other states, such as New Jersey, show that many mom-and-pop stores take a serious interest in their customers. Ira Levin, owner of Legend Firearms in Morganville, NJ, formed the New Jersey Firearms Dealers Association in October 2015. He says there are about 350 licensed gun sellers in New Jersey and most are small business owners. Most of his new customers are in their mid-60s. “But if they tell me they've never owned a gun before and I see they don't have the dexterity to safely dismantle, clean and handle the gun, I won't sell it to them," he said. Joe Gallo, another store owner, also confirms that safety is of paramount importance. “…I won't sell a gun to someone who doesn't look right to me. Or even ammunition. I want to know who's getting the bullets. That's the right thing to do." New Jersey law allows gun dealers to ship ammunition. Lisa Caso, who runs her father’s shop, knows a “straw” buyer and isn’t afraid to call them out. "If a woman comes in with a pistol purchase permit, but the guy with her asks all the questions, I start asking who the gun is really for," she said. "I'd rather lose a sale than see a gun end up where it doesn't belong."

While some shop owners believe it’s not their role or responsibility to help identify people with mental health issues or intervene, many others believe they have an obligation to help keep the public and their own customers safe from harm. Reaching out to this group and engaging as many as possible can only lead to positive outcomes.


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