By Richard Knox
The elegantly dressed woman looked out of place at Riley’s Sport Shop, the largest gun dealer in New Hampshire. Owner Ralph Demicco was behind the counter. He noticed she didn’t make eye contact.
“I’d like to buy a gun,” she said. “Could I see that one?”
Demicco sensed something was amiss. “Should you really be buying a gun?” he asked.
She immediately broke into tears. “I took her into the backroom,” Demicco recalls. “She confided that she’d been released from the state mental hospital in Concord that morning. She said she told her doctor she wasn’t ready to go and if he discharged her she was going to take her life. Apparently he didn’t put any stock in that.”
Demicco asked the name of her psychiatrist, then told her to go home and wait for the doctor to call. Then he called the doctor, who intervened. It was a suicide that didn’t happen.
The incident stuck with Demicco. But it wasn’t until later that he realized that gun dealers could take more concerted action to prevent gun suicides — by far the nation’s leading cause of firearm fatalities. That came after a Dartmouth Medical School injury prevention researcher alerted him that three different customers had killed themselves in a single week within hours or days of buying their guns at Riley’s.
The partnership is a rare instance of common cause between gun enthusiasts and public health proponents, amid increasingly polarized public views.
“That was stunning,” Demicco says. He started meeting with the Dartmouth researcher and other gun retailers and health workers. They decided to create a group called the New Hampshire Firearms Safety Coalition. Their idea is catching on — in Massachusetts, Vermont, Maryland, New York, Virginia, Tennessee, Texas, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California, according to Elaine Frank, chair of the New Hampshire coalition.
Frank is the Dartmouth injury-prevention specialist who alerted Demicco to the problem. Early on in the coalition’s work, a public health worker came to a meeting after talking to gun shop owners around the state. She expressed surprise they were so positive.
One of the gun dealers in the group said, “I could be insulted by that,” Frank recalls. “He said, ‘Why would you think we’d be less interested in suicide prevention than you are?’ It was absolutely an ‘aha!’ moment.”
The partnership is a rare instance of common cause between gun enthusiasts and public health proponents, amid increasingly polarized public views on how to reduce the nation’s death toll from firearms. It’s not embraced by all gun proponents; some fear it’s a stalking horse for more gun controls.
But it’s a real-life example of what President Obama and others are calling for: a public health approach to the nation’s gun violence crisis.
“The concept of collaboration, which is often lost, is very much alive in this area of suicide prevention,” says Bill Brassard, spokesman for the National Sport Shooting Foundation, which represents gun dealers.
A prominent gun control advocate at the Harvard H.T. Chan School of Public Health agrees. “What you want to do are the things that are easiest to do — the low-hanging fruit — and show we can work together,” says David Hemenway, author of “Private Guns, Public Health.” “It takes a long time to build trust. But this is happening.”
The payoff could be large — potentially bigger than gun control measures proposed to stem homicides. Continue reading