Episode 4: The Real Gun Tragedy

Due to multiple high profile mass shootings, many parents and students fear that a school shooting will happen at their school. But school shootings - and even mass shootings - are statistically rare. This episode, we'll spend some time looking at the biggest culprit of gun deaths in the US: suicide.

Episode 4: The Real Gun Tragedy

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John J. Happel/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Ralph Demicco spent forty years as the owner of local gun store in New Hampshire. He has served on several local NRA affiliate committees in his state and was instrumental in forming a coalition to raise awareness about the growing numbers of firearm suicide in the U.S.

Episode transcript

SAMANTHA LAINE PERFAS: After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Pew Research Center conducted a survey that found nearly six in 10 teens and their parents said they're worried that a mass shooting could happen at their school. One out of four say they're very worried. Surveys show that most Americans view gun violence as a big problem. But would it surprise you to hear that the biggest part of the problem isn't mass shootings. Actually mass shootings are rare, statistically speaking, and even school shootings don't happen as often as they used to. The vast majority of gun deaths, arguably the biggest gun problem, is actually suicide. And yet we don't often talk about it.

That's a perception gap.

I'm Samantha Laine Perfas, and this is Perception Gaps by The Christian Science Monitor.

Before we really get to the heart of this episode I feel like it's important to address a few things. The purpose of this episode is not to say that mass shootings are not a problem. They are a problem. They are heartbreaking, emotional events that motivate Americans to talk about gun violence. But, one thing that we're not that motivated to talk about is the number of Americans who lose their lives to suicide by firearm or are affected by someone else taking their life. According to the latest data from the CDC, nearly two thirds of all gun deaths are due to suicide. Let me repeat that. Out of more than 38,000 deaths by firearms in 2017, most are suicides. Not mass shootings or gang shootings or even domestic shootings. But by the way the media covers gun violence would you even know? Today, I want to take some time to talk about suicide by firearm. We'll talk to a woman who cold-called the National Rifle Association looking for solutions after she lost her own husband to suicide. And we'll talk to a retired New Hampshire gun shop owner who has started a national campaign to fight suicide. This may not be the gun conversation you typically hear, but I think it's an important one to have. Let's start by looking at some of the facts.

JAMES FOX: Mass shootings account for less than 1 percent of homicides in this country. They certainly get more than 1 percent of the coverage. They're high profile events and since they can happen to anyone at any time in any place, they're probably the scariest forms of gun violence. And that's one of the least common forms of homicide.

PERFAS: That's James Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University who's been studying gun crime since the 1980s. I asked him about suicide deaths and how they compare to homicide. His answer: There are more suicides by firearm than all other gun homicides combined.

FOX: A majority of gun deaths involve self-inflicted harm, suicides, not homicide but suicides, again, don't seem to get the same level of attention that homicide does. Unfortunately, when we see statistics on gun violence, the two are often combined. Yet the factors underlying suicide and homicide, and the solutions involving, pertaining to suicide and homicide, are very different.

PERFAS: Why do you think this misperception around gun deaths exists in the US? You know, that if you had asked the average person what they think is kind of the biggest problem, I think most people would agree that mass shootings are. But that's just not the reality.

FOX: No not only is it the small share of all homicides, it's not increasing, which is also contrary to most people's perceptions. And that also, again relates to the way these events are covered. If you go back, let's say school shootings for example. There were more school shootings, multiple victim school shootings in the 1990s than there are now. Yet the coverage is very different. Back then we didn't have the kind of coverage on the cable news channel. We didn't have satellite trucks showing up at the scene of a shooting and beaming images into your living room in high definition television. So the coverage was different than it is today. And that's why perceptions are different. Because seeing is believing. People see these events. They're covered on the news around the clock and people therefore get the sense it's an epidemic when in fact the statistics say otherwise. That in terms of mass shootings the rate has been relatively constant for the past three decades.

ANDREW MORRAL: As you know, gun policy is is one of the most divisive science policy questions. It's very tied to partisan views. So if you tell me your party affiliation, I have a pretty good idea of a lot of your ideas about gun policy.  

PERFAS: Andrew Morral is a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation. For the last few years, he's been leading a project called "Gun Policy in America." You can find it on their website, and you should look it up because it's really cool and interactive. The project shows the different research that's been done around the effectiveness of various gun policies. One problem they've identified is a lack of research. And another problem is the quality of the research that has been done. Let's pick up here with our conversation.

PERFAS: You mention that it kind of seems like there's not actually that much research or data or studies that kind of look at the effects of policy. I'm just curious why is that? Why isn't there more data out there?

MORRAL: Well, one reason is that for the past 20 years the US government has systematically avoided funding research in this area. Up until about 1996 the CDC was investing some money in gun violence research. Then in 1996, Congress passed a rider to an appropriations bill called the Dickey Amendment that said the CDC couldn't be engaged in research that was advocating for different types of gun laws. And since then the CDC really hasn't been engaged in any research or very little research on gun violence. 

PERFAS: Do we know why the federal government decided to stop?

MORRAL: Well, Congress was upset about the research that was being done at CDC and some members of Congress believed that it was serving an advocacy function rather than primarily a research function. And so they passed that amendment.

PERFAS: I don't know about you, but that fact right there blew my mind. The federal government hasn't been investing in gun policy research? Which may explain why: 1) there isn't that much research out there and 2) some of the research out there has questionable quality. I can't help but think that maybe agreeing that we need better research could be the common ground. A way to start identifying our blind spots so we can better identify the right solutions. Anyways, I wanted to talk to Andrew about the research that is out there and what experts agree and disagree on. So let's pick up.

PERFAS: So, looking at the project that Rand Corporation has done based on the research that you guys are able to look at, it seemed to me that most experts, and maybe even the public, agree on what the outcome should be such as reducing deaths, but that there's a lot of disagreement over which policies would be the most effective in achieving that. Is that accurate?

MORRAL: Yeah, that's right. We did a survey of about 100 gun policy experts and advocates asking them what they thought the effects of different gun policies would be. There were several laws where there was sharp disagreement on the effects. And as you said, what we found was that the laws that people like are laws that they believe will reduce gun deaths. That seems to be a top priority for everyone. On these laws where there's disagreement about the likely effects, there's real disagreement on whether they're good laws or not. So for instance, "stand your ground" laws, the experts we surveyed who favored more permissive gun laws thought that "stand your ground" laws should reduce gun deaths and homicides, in particular, because they think that it will serve as a deterrent for people if they know that other people are armed and don't have a duty to retreat in the case of a confrontation. In contrast, the experts who favor more restrictive gun laws believe just the opposite. They think that laws like "stand your ground" are much more likely to increase homicides and gun violence.

PERFAS: If I'm just an average news consumer, you know, and you asked me what type of gun violence is the most problematic, based on what I see, like we were talking about, I'd have to say mass shootings or even school shootings, to be more specific. But if the reality is that suicide accounts for a significantly higher number of gun deaths in the US, do you see this misperception impacting how we talk about gun control as a country?

MORRAL: Yeah, I think you're absolutely right, I mean mass shootings account for less than 1 percent of all gun deaths in the US. They are very sensational and they get a lot of news attention. So people do focus on that. And I think that when people focus on one particular type of gun violence, they're much more likely to think about strategies or policies that would address that particular type. So yeah, I think it's likely that the lack of attention given to firearms suicide is likely to shape the way people think about gun policy. Part of the reason people don't think about suicide as a big part of the firearms violence problem is that people often don't talk about suicide when members of their family kill themselves or obituaries often don't mention that it was a suicide or that it was a firearm suicide. I think there's a lot of shame or embarrassment and that that has also contributed to it being a kind of unobservable firearms violence.

JENNIFER STUBER: In 2011, my late husband, or my husband died by suicide. His name is Matt Adler, and so he ended his life with a firearm. So you know, there's just this irony as I started to learn about everything that I could about suicide, which I was able to do pretty quickly because I'm at a university, and realized that you know there are a lot of perceptions that don't actually match reality. And there's a lot that's not being talked about.

PERFAS: Jennifer Stuber is a faculty member at the University of Washington. She cofounded and is the faculty director of an organization called Forefront Suicide Prevention. When I was researching this episode I came across her story in a column she wrote for The Washington Post. After she lost her husband to suicide, she redirected her entire career to looking at suicide and trying to figure out how to prevent it. A few years after her husband died, she decided to cold-call the NRA. I asked her if she would be willing to share that experience with me. She agreed and gave me a call.

PERFAS: What was your perception of the NRA before you made that call, and how did it change afterwards?

STUBER: Yeah, well, I think at the time that I made the call I didn't have really really strong views about the NRA although, you know, everything that I had heard in the press was that you know they're basically a political lobbying organization that's very pro-firearm. But I had also known that there's a long history of the organization, you know, really being involved in the promotion of firearms safety. And so when I reached out to them I was really reaching out to them with kind of an open mind but also kind of expecting them to be like, "Who the heck are you and why are you calling?" And so I kind of expected to not really get very far. And then I was surprised that actually the opposite is what happened. I just want to be clear that the National Rifle Association is one of a range of partners who are working together in Washington state. And really what we've done, there's like, more than 45 partners in the state of Washington working together, and it's people who don't typically sit at the same table together. So for example, you know the Department of Health, you know Alliance for Gun Responsibility, a children's hospital, the National Rifle Association, Second Amendment Foundation. These are groups that wouldn't normally come together, but the reason they've come together is around a common goal of, you know, saving lives lost to suicide. And I think that really what's happened in sitting around this table together is to develop a program called Safer Homes Suicide Aware, it's a campaign actually, for the state of Washington, is that we just learned a lot from each other. So I think, you know, that groups like the NRA and the Second Amendment Foundation honestly didn't know very much about suicide prevention, and I think they were looking for a partner that they could trust, that they didn't feel was looking to take away or impede gun rights in any way. They were looking for somebody who really wanted to focus on, you know, suicide prevention in terms of community based education. And there's a lot of common ground there that I did not anticipate necessarily from the outset would be there.

PERFAS: You said it's a lot of people that don't typically sit at the table together. And I guess specifically when you think about the NRA - they have a really bad rap. They're not perceived very highly by the liberal media. And it's kind of become this, you know, tribal organization in the sense of some sides think that they're great and are pushing for Second Amendment rights and the other side thinks they're the absolute worst who's responsible for all the gun violence that we see. And both of those extremes are not accurate. So it's interesting to think that there is common ground and that the NRA can be part of that very important conversation that's happening if there are people that are willing to sit down together.

STUBER: You know when you start talking about, kind of, the NRA and the way you're describing it, kind of the stereotypes, and you actually start talking to the people, what you find is that, you know, it's not like they're bogeymen. You know what I mean? It's that those perceptions aren't, actually they're not accurate. And so I think that that's, you do have to really like sit down and one of the things that we did was we created kind of a safe place to have conversations. Like we're very clear, for example, that you know look we're a local collaboration in the state of Washington. We've got to, for example set some ground rules around, you know it might be one thing to kind of you know critique Hillary Clinton or bash Donald Trump, but like when it comes to working together at a local level, we're not going to put each other down and call each other out in that way. We're going to create a trusted bond, you know, between us and we're going to work to try to keep the work that we're doing together, kind of, out of the press in a politicized way.

PERFAS: And you said that in this process you actually found there is quite a bit of common ground between all the different groups.

STUBER: First and foremost, I would say that the common ground is that nobody wants people to die by firearm and nobody wants people to die by suicide. And so where we're focused on is really on being in those communities and changing the culture and norms and providing education about suicide prevention in those communities in a way that previously hasn't happened in the past. So for example, we take our campaign into gun shows. There's many many gun shows across the state of Washington and across the country. They happen, I would say, a couple times a month at least. And so you know we're invited into those gun shows, and in those gun shows we actually have conversations with hundreds of people. We never thought in a million years when we started this work that we would be invited into these gun shows and in fact it's been the opposite. We were invited into all of them. We provide very very tailored education and we get really real with people about what's going on in their lives and who they are concerned about and have they had any risks in the past, have they lost people in the past, and I've had, you know, some of the best education I've ever had on the topic of suicide prevention has actually come from interacting with people at these gun shows. Because they share things that I never would have thought of. It's the population, frankly, that's at highest risk. Not people are gun shows per say, but we know that men, you know, 34 to 65, they die by suicide by the largest numbers and they disproportionately use firearms. And guess what? That's who's exactly at those gun shows. So there's very few people we talked to there who don't have some kind of direct experience with suicide. Like the gentleman who came up to the booth and was kind of stoic and was really hard to get into a conversation, and he ultimately ended up revealing that his brother had died by suicide 22 years earlier and that the only person who actually knew that truth, that he had really talked about it with was me. Other than his his own mother, and that he hadn't talked about it in 22 years and he just completely got very emotional at this. But it was a it was an amazing thing. Like you could tell that he really appreciated the opportunity to kind of, let it go. So my late husband was an attorney, very high performing, you know corporate attorney, and he was struggling with depression and anxiety, particularly around the downturn in the economy and fear about losing his job. And his symptoms were very very intense and where, you know, they were trying lots of different medications and therapies and nothing really felt like it was working for him. And so he reached a place of hopelessness and then... so in my case, I didn't understand his risks. Really there, I didn't actually, suicide was not on my radar like it isn't for a lot of Americans. We don't talk about it. Definitely not. We're talking about a lot more these days, but you know, it wasn't something that I really thought was really within the realm of possibility. And, um, he ended his life. He bought a firearm and he, you know, ended his life. He went through a background check in, you know, it was premeditated in the sense that he bought that firearm. But I do believe that, you know, like the person who sold them the firearm for example, was assumedly one of the last couple people who saw my husband alive. And I have yet to find a firearms retailer who hasn't had some level of concern around this issue, and some level of willingness to do something about it. For many people who've lived through suicide attempts or who've been in that dark place, that if people can connect with you you know in those final moments that can make a huge difference. Again if you can delay someone from ending their life or give them a spark of hope, you know that could be the turning point for them that comes.

RALPH DEMICCO: My name is Ralph Demicco. And for the last, well, since 1973, right out of leaving the service I worked in a firearms store. I came from an anti-gun family. My mother grew up on a farm in Canada and she just didn't like guns. My father was in World War II and he after he got out of World War II he could care less. And my first exposure of firearms, I was at my grandfather's farm in Canada and spotted his .22 rifle up on the wall, and oh boy, "Grandpa, is that your rifle?" And he said, "Yeah, you want to go shoot?" And my mother just went right through the ceiling. When we got out of the service, I needed something to do and I said, "I think I'll go see if I can get a part-time job at my favorite gun store." That was it. It went from a part-time job to a full-time job to owning it and here I am today. About 10 years ago, maybe nine years ago, I got a call from an old colleague Elaine Frank from the Dartmouth health community, asking me, actually telling me, did I know that in a six day period of time three different individuals purchase firearms from Riley's and took their lives. And I was aghast. I was aghast because we had always prided ourselves as a socially responsible firearms store in that we always trained our employees that no sale was more important than the comfort level that you should have between the buyer and the seller. And the way we did this was we said, look, you know, if anything tips you off to possibly something being not correct, not right with the individual that wants to buy the gun, you are to shut down the sale and then we'll figure a way to maneuver around the situation. But by no means sell a gun to someone who you think is either incapable, either because they don't have firearms knowledge or under duress or stress or some such thing. Under no circumstances do we ever want to do that. We somehow in a six day period missed three people. Saturday morning I was working the counter at the store and into the door comes a lady. Dressed like she just stepped out of the IBM board room. She was meticulously dressed in a business suit, and she walked up to the counter and looked down and she said, "I'd like to, I'd like to buy that gun." So right away I said to myself, no, had she been in before? Does she know what she's looking at? And I said to her, "Excuse me, should you really be buying a gun?" And the woman immediately broke down and started crying. I took her from the show room to the side office and sat her down and she unfolded her story. She told me that that morning she was released from the state hospital. She had told her physician she was not ready to go and that if he released her she was going to take her life. And, after some dialogue apparently he was convinced, and he convinced her that she was ready to go back to her normal lifestyle. Well, he released her and there she was to buy a gun to take her life. And I said, "Look. I will help you and here's how I'm going to help you." I said, "Do you have a ride home?" She said, "Yes, I have a car." I said, "You go home and wait for your physician to call. I'm going to call, I'll somehow get in touch with him or someone to give you a call. Can you do this?" She said, "Absolutely." She thanked me profusely and it was like I had, I don't know, saved her life almost. And maybe I did. I don't know. She left the store with a piece of mind, a much different temperament than when she walked in and I assume that she did not, at least at that time, go on to take her life. And that's the kind of thing, the interaction where none of us are psychiatrists in the in the firearms business. We're not psychologists or psychiatrists, we can analyze people on the spot. But what we can do is spot inconsistencies in people's behavior that might identify a situation that we don't want to exacerbate by selling a firearm.

PERFAS: Ralph and his colleague Elaine Frank from the New Hampshire Firearm and Safety Coalition started the Gun Shop Project in 2009. As Ralph said, the coalition started working with 65 gun stores. They put up posters and handed out suicide hotline cards. One focus of their campaign was gun owners helping gun owners. The gist of it was, if someone you know is under duress or stress, offer to temporarily hold their firearms as a precautionary measure to dissuade them from acting in the heat of the moment and taking their own life. Let them know you care. He said the program caught on like wildfire. And when I spoke with Ralph, he believed that at that point in time, 39 states had adopted similar programs to what they started in New Hampshire. It's gun owners helping gun owners and it works.

DEMICCO: You know, if you have a loved one or friend who you perceive is having a difficult time, you're crossing a bridge when you approach, you know, breach the subject with him or her by saying, "Look, I know you're having a hard time, I think you are anyway, and I'd like to help you out by holding your, holding on to your guns for a bit." You know, I'm sure there's pushback on that one. It's not out of line to step up to the plate and ask this individual if you can hold on to their guns. You know it does work. It really is a task for family and friends to try to recognize situations where a loved one or an acquaintance may be in danger and step up to the plate. And at the risk of being perceived as, you know, out of place or something, you know, say something and make a difference. And I think that's what we can do.

PERFAS: When I think back to the conversation I had with James Fox at the beginning of the episode, he made a really good point. Not all gun violence is the same. Homicide, mass shootings, gang violence, suicide. They're all very different and require different policies to address them and work towards solutions. This is a fact, and it's something that all experts agree on. However, it's also important to recognize that our gun control conversation has reached a gridlock. It often feels very partisan and very polarized in its partisanship. But perhaps if we can come together around suicide prevention, recognize that no one benefits from it, and it is in fact the largest percentage of gun deaths in the US, then maybe we can make progress in tackling that gridlock. That cannot be the end of the conversation. But as Jen found in working with the NRA, it has the power to bring people to the same table who wouldn't normally work together. Before we close I want to return to my conversation with Jen. I asked her what gives her hope in this conversation and if she feels like there are lessons the rest of the country could learn from the work they're doing in Washington state.

STUBER: You know, one of the things that I saw that's been really powerful for me is that I think about, it used to be that one of the largest forms of firearm fatality was actually accidents when people were out hunting. What's happened there is, you know, very much the NRA took a hugely proactive role in hunting safety and not only the NRA, but across the country there are these grassroots organizations of people that are actually training the next generation in hunting safety. And I've seen that so powerfully in our state where there's about a thousand hunter safety instructors who volunteer their time to train young people who are learning how to use firearms. I could see something very similar happening with regard to suicide prevention. We're not going to solve, you know, our nation's hardest problems, such as the number of lives we're losing to suicide, unless we can actually come together and work through, possible, and come up with possible solutions. That's really important when we talk about reducing suicide. And we talk about reducing, you know, mass shootings, etc. like, we do have to figure out a way to have more civil conversations and to not just be looking to score political points or for the latest headline. So I think that there's a lot that we could be doing. We can learn from this experience. It is possible to actually have a conversation about this issue across the political aisle, across, you know, groups that often don't collaborate.

PERFAS: Thank you for listening to this episode. It was a really heavy topic to research and not an easy one to talk about. But I hope that you walk away having learned something and feeling hopeful that the gun conversation isn't just one conversation. It's multifaceted and it's not hopeless. Let me know what you think. You can email me at podcast@csmonitor.com. Next week we'll switch gears and talk about another perception gap. Who is stealing our jobs: Is it immigrants or robots? Join us next time to find out.

I want to give a big thank you to all those who made this episode possible: producer Dave Scott, our studio engineers Morgan Anderson, Ian Blaquiere, Tory Silver, and Tim Malone; original sound design by Noel Flatt and Morgan Anderson. And a special thanks to all my volunteer editors: Mark Sappenfield, Clay Collins, Ben Frederick, Amanda Paulson, Em Okrepkie, and Andy Bickerton.

I'm Samantha Laine Perfas. Thanks for listening to Perception Gaps.

COPYRIGHT: This podcast was produced by The Christian Science Monitor. Copyright 2018.