Year-long Study Brings Eclectic Group Together To Discuss Firearm Suicide Prevention

(AP Photo/Marina Riker, File)

Definition of convergence

1: the act of converging and especially moving toward union or uniformity
2: the state or property of being convergent
3 a evolutionary biology : independent development of similar traits or features (as of body structure or behavior) in unrelated or distantly related species or lineages : CONVERGENT EVOLUTION
b: the independent development of similarities between separate cultures
4: the merging of distinct technologies, industries, or devices into a unified whole

A new study involving a wide swath of individuals from different walks of life has just rolled out. The title of the study: Dialogue on Guns & Suicide Prevention. Who brought the group together? An organization named Convergence. Their mission statement is emblematic of their name:

We convene people and groups with divergent views to build trust, identify solutions, and form alliances for action on critical national issues.

The report on the findings of the group was published on December 7th and there’s a lot of compelling information to take in. One of the biggest things that I found an emphasis on was the importance of relationship building and communicating outside of our respective echo chambers. It was refreshing to see Second Amendment advocates listed along side, what I’ll politely describe for the sake of this article, people representing “gun safety” groups. Besides bringing valuable data and offering up salient recommendations, the convergence of these groups and individuals will hopefully act as an icebreaker, where people can come together to discuss issues without partisan pressure in the future. Let the study act as an example of how people can come together on the firearm issue in America.

As participants in a year-long Convergence dialogue, we advised on the strategies included in this report in service of our common goal—preventing firearm suicide. Convened as a cross-sector, cross-partisan group, we’ve forged trust, deepened mutual understanding, and identified solutions to address this urgent issue.

We come from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, perspectives and experiences. We come from rural and urban America. We hold a wide range of policy views. Our group includes individuals from gun rights and responsibilities advocacy groups, the gun industry, suicide prevention groups, gun violence prevention advocacy groups, mental health and medical practitioners, researchers, faith leaders, and those with a range of important personal connections to this issue. Among us are leaders and groups with opposing views and, in some cases, our organizations have not had meaningful, constructive interactions prior to this dialogue process. But we recognized America needs a different and better conversation on guns, and we are losing far too many of our friends and neighbors to suicide. In coming together, we sought to listen generously across differences, dig beneath top-line positions to understand underlying reasoning and motivations, and rely on both lived experience and data to find solutions

Given the eclectic nature of the participants, a strict emphasis was placed on not alienating a person or group of persons. The focus was on a common goal, the mitigation of death by suicide, and while identity politics play a crucial role in how policy is written in the United States, members worked to ensure things remained respectful. Through the course of the study over 130 interviews were conducted as well as small group discussions across a diverse cross-section of our population. The focus was on the national conversation that needs to continue to occur.

Despite our many differences there is one fundamental truth: we all want to prevent firearm suicide and want any person struggling with suicidal ideation to receive competent care, support, and resources.

[…]

The possibility that a dialogue such as ours can be expanded, thus using the process that shaped and informed this group to engage others in a collaborative problem-solving approach.

In the spirt to not stigmatize gun owners, several things were expressed in the report. The fact that having gun owners involved in the conversation is crucial, as they’re the population that’ll be most affected by policy that may come from anyone that reads the findings of the report. And looking at some of the findings, gun owners also have the most to gain. Beyond that, organizations in the Second Amendment community are already actively working to mitigate suicide risk and means.

While gun owners are not more likely to experience a suicidal crisis than others, there is an elevated risk when such a crisis occurs. While a variety of means are used by individuals who die by suicide, the lethality is elevated when a firearm is used, with 83 – 90% of firearm suicide attempts resulting in death.

[…]

One of the themes from this dialogue was that both message and messenger matter in terms of effective prevention. While many individuals, professionals, and organizations have a role, we believe that gun owners must be an essential part of identifying, implementing, and promoting solutions that work. The inclusion of these voices in public health initiatives, programs, and research efforts to prevent firearm suicide can ground and will improve such efforts. Interventions that include a range of inputs, including the lived experience of gun owners, are critical to saving lives.

Our group sought not to stigmatize or blame but to build understanding among gun owners and non-gun owners, recognizing the individuals who comprise these groups include a wide range of cultural identifications and are hardly of one geography, gender, income group, race, sexual orientation, or identity. We cannot characterize either group with sweeping, simplistic terms or labels, especially as the demographic make-up of those choosing to own and not own guns continues to evolve and diversify.

Knowing that this topic and topics like it can be greeted with a varying level of support from gun owners, I’ll express my personal opinion that it’s important that we’re heard. Yes, there is absolute power in, and there is a place for “no compromise” groups. There’s also a very important place for those that work to break barriers between friends on either side of the isle, and work to have meaningful discussions about these difficult concepts and problems. My personal biggest fear is that we’ll be left behind. I don’t want policy that’s going to affect me get implemented without my perspective being respected. In this atmosphere, we’ve been invited to the table, and that’s pretty big given the make up of today’s political atmosphere. Perhaps it’s that atmosphere that’s changing which is acting as a catalyst to such collaborative efforts.

Further, a recognition that gun owners are not monolithic, hold a wide range of views, and aren’t simply part of one “culture” would be critical to meaningfully grappling with behavior
change and any emerging education efforts to prevent firearm suicide.

Coming into the dialogue, leaders from a range of perspectives felt caricatured and misunderstood. Self-described advocates with a particular focus on gun violence prevention sometimes felt their work was incorrectly described as having sinister motives or was disrespectful toward the rights of gun owners even as they worked to reduce injuries and prevent deaths by suicide. Gun rights advocates and other gun industry leaders felt their views were often oversimplified, that gun owners were reduced to stereotypes at times, and that they too wanted to prevent deaths and promote responsible practices.

[…]

Gun owners are a diverse group across gender, age, geography, race, and other factors. Approximately four in ten adults in the U.S. live in a household with at least one gun present, according to this Pew data – though we know gun sales have broken records in .lii recent years likely driving this number higher.

White adults are more likely than Black or Hispanic adults to own guns, and white men are particularly likely to be gun owners: 48% of white men say they currently own a gun, .liv lv
compared with 24% of white women and men of color and 16% of women of color. Even though predominant ownership is among middle-aged white males, ownership is changing, with more women and minority individuals purchasing firearms. Our group has seen anecdotal evidence of this trend and as mentioned above, we know gun purchases have climbed and broken records in recent years, which includes a mix of existing gun owners purchasing additional guns and new gun owners choosing to buy.

What did the numbers show? The group looked at statistics from a number of different governmental agencies. In the United States death by suicide in 2019 was ranked as the 10th most leading cause of death.  The sex with the highest instances of death by suicide would be males, across the board of racial demographics. Suicide rates based off race in descending order per 100,000: American Indian/Alaskan Natives with a 22.1 rate, Whites with a rate of 17.54, Black/African Americans at 7.38, and Asian/Pacific Islanders with 7.07. The rates on death by suicide via firearm change a bit with Whites ranking at a 8.5 rate, American Indian/Alaskan Natives with a rate of 4.2, Black/African Americans ranking with 3.5, and finally Asian/Pacific Islanders at 1.8.

Also mentioned in the study and by extension the solutions, is the role that the  mental health community/industry can play in helping people get the needed aid. De-stigmatization of seeking and receiving mental health care needs to continue in the United States. A concept I subscribe to is wrapped around this question-answer-question: “Do we vilify someone that has type 1 diabetes, a medical condition? No. So why do we vilify someone that’s undergoing care for their mental health, also a medical condition?” To be verbosely uncouth, we wouldn’t blame a cripple for being a cripple, would we? One of the myths that was “busted” within exemplifies a large hurdle for the mental health community to jump over in order to gain the trust of gun owners seeking care:

We also explored stigmas and myths about these issues. Stigmas exist around seeking treatment for mental health issues, and myths exist regarding the impact on gun ownership if one seeks help, which can obscure the ultimate goal of making sure people receive quality and timely care.

Myth: If an individual reveals they own guns to a mental health professional, they will be put on a no-buy list and have their guns confiscated.

Fact: Although laws differ from one state to the next, mental health providers don’t have the ability to place an individual directly on a no-buy list. In most cases, removal of firearms is temporary and carried out in a legal process where imminent danger appears likely. Mental health professionals and doctors can strengthen their ability to engage respectfully with gun owners by understanding their needs, values, and lived experience just as they seek to do so with other people to promote strong rapport and provide competent and individualized care.

Normalizing the practice of getting mental health help needs to occur in our society. Fostering an environment that’s punitive towards those seeking care is counterproductive and dangerous. Policymakers need take note.

I reached out to a number of the participants in the study and a few of them got back to me about their thoughts on the program.

Rob Pincus, an author, firearms instructor, and member of the industry had the following to say when I chatted him up about the experience:

Each month we settled in to do some learning, some listening and some sharing. It was a great experience. Some of the participants I’ve been friends with for years and several I’ve worked with to protect gun rights and promote responsible gun ownership. I knew others held very different views. The goal wasn’t really to change their mind, the goal was to understand their position, correct misunderstandings, rebuke misrepresentations and, ultimately, see what we could all agree on.

It was great that people really focused on that goal and didn’t get mired down in the obvious points of disagreement.

The concern some gun owners have is “compromise”… well, there’s nothing compromising about acknowledging that gun owners can do some things to reduce firearm involved suicide. There is nothing in this report that supports a single gun restriction or legislation… the clear consensus was on education and awareness, developed and delivered by real leaders in the gun community, with the help of mental health professionals and accurate data.

Dr. Emmy Betz, emergency physician and director of the Firearm Injury Prevention Initiative at the University of Colorado and I had a great hour long conversation a few weeks ago on this very subject. I was excited to learn about the release of this report this week and here are her comments about it:

This project is proof that individuals from diverse perspectives can work together – respectfully and in good faith – to find ways to prevent firearm suicide. Because none of us wants to lose any more friends or family members.

Michael Sodini the President of Walk the Talk America sent me the following remarks about his involvement:

I was invited by Convergence to be one of the various groups that was participating in an exchange of health dialogue on what we can do to reduce suicide by firearm and other negative outcomes. I represented Walk The Talk America and what we do to contribute to both the firearms industry, gun culture, and the mental health community. It was important to attend to show the country and the other attendees that the firearms industry is doing more to get ahead of these tragic instances than anyone else. Being a homegrown organization from the firearms industry, my goal has always been to get the firearms industry to get where the alcohol industry has gotten with DUIs. Nobody blames Johnnie Walker when someone gets behind the wheel and does something tragic.

Chris Cheng, competitive shooter, advocate, and winner of History Channel’s 2012 Top Shot shooting competition reality TV show took some time to give me his thoughts on participating in the study.

The Convergence experience gave me faith that we can still indeed have civil conversations that focus on solutions, even when participants hold varying perspectives about firearms. We all aligned and agreed that suicide prevention and mental health are areas of common interest. Firearms safety and education play a central role in these focus areas not just for gun owners, but for non-gun owners too. I learned a lot about how we can all be positive supporters of our family and friends when we go through our toughest life challenges.

I did reach out to Everytown for Gun Safety who had a participant listed and they did not respond to my correspondence.

A source close to the project told me that there was a representative from Giffords that participated in the study, however their name and organization was not listed. My source speculated they asked to have their name/organization not included and to not be associated with the study because in the list of solutions the statutory regulation of firearms was not included.

Convergence does not push a narrative one way or another, and remains unbiased in the collection/dissemination of their reports, data and opinions. Something that was quite refreshing that was absent from their recommendations were calls for bans and regulation. Other “non-partisan” groups, many that claim to be “gun safety” groups, are quick to jump to a legislative solution and or take on a prohibitionist attitude towards firearms in their offerings. The strategies listed don’t embrace a culture of banning, but rather one of study, education, and resource expansion.

Noted in the report, Strategies for the Future:

Strategy 1: Increase and expand funding for programs and their subsequent evaluation that seek to prevent suicides by firearm.
Strategy 2: Highlight current work by firearms groups and others to promote and expand their suicide prevention reach and scope.
Strategy 3: Increase and expand firearm suicide prevention research.
Strategy 4: Amplify education on lethal means and suicide prevention to drastically reduce the number of firearm suicides in the United States.
Strategy 5: Demonstrate that dialogue can occur to rebuild trust, forge stronger mutual understanding, find common ground, and take action to prevent firearm suicide.

One of the more compelling strategies to me that was offered up was the highlighting of the work that’s being done by firearms groups already. Participants from groups like Walk The Talk America and Hold My Guns have been trailblazing on the side of rights preservationists to help bring solutions to the problem of death by suicide via firearm. These are true grassroots groups that have the best interests of people in mind while respecting civil liberties.

One of Hold My Guns missions focuses on one such solution presented within the strategies of the report.

We believe in promoting safer in-home and voluntary out-of-home storage opportunities, consistent with state and local laws, to reduce firearm access to individuals at-risk of suicide. Temporarily limiting access to lethal means is critical to preventing firearm suicide.

Having access to voluntary out-of-home storage is a topic I discussed last month in ““Safe Storage Map” Illustrates The Need For National Conversation“. In that piece I explored the number of problematic regulatory road-blocks that are in our current system which makes out-of-home storage difficult or unappealing. Seeing the recommendation that this topic deserves further emphasis placed on it and was refreshing. States that don’t allow people to temporarily give their firearms to a friend or family member for safe keeping in a time of peril need to pay attention to strategies that would buck their political narrative. If it’s truly about saving lives, set the politics aside.

The topic of suicide and suicide by firearm is not going to go away anytime soon. The following statistics make that abundantly clear:

While there was apparently a modest decrease in the total number of suicides in the United States in 2020,i the trendline has been a roughly 35% increase since 1999.ii Of all the gun deaths in America each year, approximately 60% are suicides. iii Further, about half of all suicides in recent years are by firearm. iv For certain groups, the level of attempts and deaths by suicide is particularly concerning, including veterans v and increasing rates for groups like African American youth/young adults, vi Native populations, vii and LGBTQ populations. viii

This is a conversation that we’re going to have to continue to be engaged in. While I respect and fully understand the nay-saying commentary that comes about surrounding this subject, such as “Don’t focus on the tool. Someone can kill themselves many ways.” that does not mean we shouldn’t be involved. Yes, a firearm is one of many tools that can be used that will bring the result of death by suicide, it’s also one of the most lethal means. For nay-sayers, read “effective.” That does not mean that we have zero responsibilities in this arena. While someone can just as easily hurl themselves off a bridge to die via suicide, that individual would need to transport themselves to the bridge, walk across the bridge, stare down at the water, kick off their shoes, and then fling themselves off the bridge. There’s a bit of time to contemplate the act leading up to it. As opposed to picking up a firearm located at one’s bedside and pulling the trigger in a moment of acute turmoil. If that sounds insensitive or graphic, that’s life.

One of the things that everyone needs to remember is that suicide is a permanent “solution” to a temporary problem.

The work that was done and put into this study is commendable. What fruits may come from it, I’m interested to see. In parting, the following information and statistic should be contemplated:

Gun owners are no more likely than non-gun owners to experience suicidal ideation. However, the presence of a firearm is an independent risk factor for all members of a xix household where a gun is present And, 90% of individuals who attempt suicide and xx survive do not go on to die by suicide.

Thus, the dramatic difference between these survival rates indicates that the suicide rate would decrease if we can reduce firearm suicides. That is why our group unequivocally supports the notion that means matter.

You can read the report in full HERE if you’re interested in learning more about the study. For a video of the “launch” event with several members of the study on a panel discussing it, click HERE or watch in the embed below:

Noted at the end of the report are the participants from the study:

Who We Are
Convergence Dialogue on Guns and Suicide Prevention Participants

Dr. Emmy Betz
Firearm Injury Prevention Initiative,
University of Colorado
Anschutz Medical Campus

Dr. Doreen Marshall
American Foundation for Suicide
Prevention

Dr. Rajeev Ramchand
RAND Corporation

Bill Brassard
National Shooting Sports Foundation

Dr. Megan McCarthy
Department of Veterans Affairs

Rev. Margery Rossi
Gun Violence Prevention Group,
Presbyterian Peace Fellowship

Chris Cheng
The History Channel’s Top Shot
Season 4 Champion

Rev. Dr. Sherry Molock
George Washington University,
Department of Psychological &
Brain Sciences

Peter Sargent
Backstop
Responsible Gun Owners

Elaine Frank
Counseling on Access to Lethal Means,
Dartmouth College

Casey Pick
The Trevor Project

Mike Sodini
Walk the Talk America

Jennifer Hoppe
Everytown for Gun Safety

Rob Pincus
Second Amendment Organization