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Preventing Firearms-Related Suicide in Montana

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Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services

Karl Rosston was appointed Suicide Prevention Coordinator for Montana in 2007. One of his first tasks was to convene a working group to update the Montana Strategic Suicide Prevention Plan. While working with the State Office of Vital Statistics, the group noticed that firearms are involved in 66 percent of the suicides in Montana, which is significantly higher than the rest of the country (in which about 50 percent of suicides are firearm-related). Firearms were also used in a far higher proportion of suicides than the second most common mechanism of suicide, poisoning, which is involved in 17 percent of Montana suicides. The difference was even more pronounced for men, who account for 83 percent of the state’s suicides and tend to choose more lethal means than women. The pattern also holds true for adolescent males, who will sometimes use a parent’s firearm.

The working group identified a lack of community awareness about suicide and improperly stored firearms as major problems. Rosston and his collaborators wanted to create a program that would effectively address both issues without raising the specter of gun control, which is culturally unacceptable to a substantial proportion of Montana’s population.

They examined the research and found that programs that distributed gun locks that used keys were often ineffective. People were afraid of losing the keys, so they would often leave the gun unlocked or leave the key in the lock. Rosston found that gun locks that used combinations rather than keys could be bought at a reasonable price. In 2008, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services purchased 1,400 of these locks to distribute to the public at no-cost.

Gun Louck with Tag Each gun lock is attached to a “gun safety tag” – a laminated card that includes information on recognizing and responding to the warning signs of suicide as well as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Number (1-800-273-TALK). The gun locks and tags were distributed by county health departments as well as Planting Seeds of Hope, a project that works with Native American youth in Montana and Wyoming. Each participating health department or tribal project created its own distribution plan. Gun locks were distributed at firearms shows, community events such as Helena’s Alive @ Five free music series, and during home health care visits. Don Wetzel, Project Director for Planting Seeds of Hope, reported that the gun locks and safety tags were distributed by their tribal training coordinators, sometimes in conjunction with tribal police departments or hunter safety classes.

The distribution program proved very popular. Most of the organizations reported that all their locks were distributed over the course of a week or two. Rosston credits the program’s popularity to the approach exemplified by the slogan that appears on the gun safety tag: “Protect your firearm from theft and misuse.” Rosston reported that “we were careful to make sure that the public understood that it was a gun safety program, not a gun control program. We wanted to make sure that guns were used for what they were supposed to be used for – and not suicide.” He also reported “the program gave people in the county health departments an opportunity to talk to the public about suicide” and that people were as interested in the suicide information as the free gun locks.

The program is being expanded to additional counties and will distribute an additional 2,000 gun locks and safety tags in the latter part of 2009.

For more information, contact Karl F. Rosston at (406) 444-3349 or krosston@mt.gov

 

 

 

 

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