A sheriff’s detective walked into Chuck Lovelace’s gun shop in Mount Horeb this spring and delivered unsettling news: A man who had bought a handgun at the shop a few days earlier used it to kill himself.
“My wife was devastated because she sold him the gun,” said Lovelace, owner of Essential Shooting Supplies. “It really opens your eyes.”
In part because of that suicide, Lovelace is participating in the Gun Shop Project, a new effort by Safe Communities of Madison-Dane County to help gun retailers prevent suicides by avoiding gun sales to people who show signs of being suicidal. The program also encourages gun shop customers to store firearms away from home if a household member is having a mental health crisis.
For gun shops and shooting ranges, the impact of suicide can be indirect or direct. Not only do some people buy guns and use them in suicides elsewhere; some have killed themselves at shooting ranges.
“Suicide is a very impulsive act,” said Cheryl Wittke, executive director of Safe Communities, a nonprofit that works to reduce injuries. “A critical component to prevent suicide is to reduce the access to lethal means.”
Safe Communities is launching the Gun Shop Project on Tuesday in connection with the beginning of deer hunting season Saturday, as part of its Zero Suicide initiative started this year. Hunters have guns, and many of them are middle-aged men, who have a relatively high risk of suicide, Wittke said.
She said the effort is part of a strategy to expand suicide prevention efforts beyond looking at why people kill themselves— often because of untreated depression or other mental health conditions — to examining how they do it, and reducing the opportunities.
Wisconsin had 874 suicides in 2015, 410 of them involving firearms, according to the state Department of Health Services. The year before, the state had 755 suicides, 348 involving guns.
Dane County had 68 suicides in 2015, 24 of them involving firearms. The year before, the county had 64 suicides, 21 involving guns.
Most of the shootings go unnoticed; a few make headlines. In October, state Sen. Rick Gudex, R-Fond du Lac, shot himself to death. His family said he was feeling “overwhelming depression and hopelessness.”
Mike Arts, manager of Shooters Sports Center in Caledonia, south of Milwaukee, is taking steps to prevent suicide after the fifth suicide in seven years occurred at the shooting range this spring.
The suicides, including a 34-year-old man from South Milwaukee who shot himself in the head in May, involved men who rented guns at Shooters, according to the Racine Journal-Times.
“It was pretty jolting,” Arts told the Wisconsin State Journal. He said the latest suicide made him think, “How or why does this happen? What can you do?”
Shooters started banning rentals to new customers who come alone, and staff began monitoring the shooting range more closely, Arts said. In addition, wallet-sized cards for a suicide prevention hotline were made available on the counter.
“You hope what we’ve done keeps those people from even walking in here,” Arts said.
The Gun Shop Project is an educational campaign involving posters, brochures and tip sheets discussing proper handling and storage of guns and advice on preventing their use in suicides.
Retailers are urged to use extra caution in deciding whether to sell guns to people exhibiting signs they may be suicidal. The signs include having no knowledge about guns, showing no interest in learning about guns, not caring what kind of gun they purchase, mentioning a recent crisis, avoiding eye contact and appearing distraught.
Regular customers are asked to store guns outside of their home if a loved one is struggling emotionally with job loss, legal trouble, a relationship breakup or other kind of crisis.
The man who killed himself this year after buying the gun in Mount Horeb didn’t display any signs of suicide, Lovelace said. But Lovelace and his staff have refused sales to people who “gave us bad vibes,” he said.
Losing a $300 gun sale can be hard on a small shop like his, Lovelace said. “But I’d rather eat ramen noodles and have peace of mind than eat steak and second guess what we’re doing,” he said.
Scott Whiting, owner of Deerfield Pistol and Archery Center, said being on the lookout for suicidal signs is similar to trying to make sure guns aren’t sold for illegal activity or as “straw purchases” for other people who aren’t eligible to buy guns.
“We’re trying to prevent somebody who shouldn’t have a firearm from getting one,” Whiting said. “It’s another tool to make sure guns aren’t in the headlines of another terrible tragedy.”
The Dane County Law Enforcement Training Center in Waunakee will display Gun Shop Project materials during its hunter sight-in opportunity through Friday, Sgt. Chris Larsh said.
“It’s a good opportunity to reach the sportsmen,” Larsh said. “They’re asking hunters to watch out for each other.”
The Gun Shop Project started in 2009 in New Hampshire, after three people with no connection to one another bought firearms from the same store in less than a week and killed themselves within hours.
At least 10 other states now have Gun Shop Projects, according to Elaine Frank with the New Hampshire program.
The Dane County program is the first one in Wisconsin, Wittke said. Other parts of the state are discussing the idea — including the Milwaukee and Racine areas, said Arts, of Shooters in Caledonia.