Ralph Demicco has watched the surveillance footage of a man shopping around his store, leaning on the counter and calmly chatting with the clerk before buying the gun he used to take his own life later that day. The man was one of three people, who in the span of a week purchased firearms from Demicco's gun shop and used them to commit suicide.
"I was devastated," Demicco recalled. "At the time, I remember saying over and over, 'I just can't believe it.'"
A review of the state medical examiner's records showed that recently purchased firearms were being used in suicides roughly once per month in New Hampshire. Since the string of suicides in 2009, Demicco has joined forces with health professionals and gun dealers in a campaign to help gun stores and firing ranges learn ways to avoid selling or renting a firearm to a suicidal person. The campaign, known as The Gun Shop Project, also encourages gun businesses to share suicide prevention materials with customers.
"It's not that gun owners are more likely to be suicidal or depressed. It's that guns are the most lethal way for someone to take their own life," said Elaine Frank, with the New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition. Firearm suicides account for more deaths than all other suicide methods combined and 65 percent of all gun deaths in the U.S., according to figures from 2011 provided by gunpolicy.org, an international group working to reduce gun injuries.
Since the project launched two years ago, groups in 15 states have reached out for guidance or have asked to use its informational posters and brochures. Scott Ridgeway, executive director of the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, said his group hopes to distribute those materials to the more than 1,000 gun stores in his state by September. A Maryland gun dealer and an Illinois sheriff's department have also expressed interest in the project, though most of the interest has come from suicide prevention groups.
"When you put suicide prevention in firearm safety terms, it makes it something that's already part of these businesses' mission," said Granger Brown, outreach coordinator for the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network. "It changes something that could sound like gun control to being about firearm safety."
Project members hope that media attention from their work and the prominence of the national gun debate will help them draw more attention to preventing firearm suicides. They see it as an opportunity for gun makers to be in the spotlight for a positive reason and said they believe if a major gun manufacturer would sponsor their message, suicide prevention could become a standard part of firearm safety training.
"I would love to see the firearm industry take on this issue the same way the alcohol industry has embraced the idea of the designated driver," said Cathy Barber, project member with the Injury Prevention Research Center at Harvard.
One poster for the group shows two men at a kitchen table, one resting his arm on the other's shoulder, their heads bowed. A pistol and magazine sit before them. The poster reads: "Concerned about a family member or friend? Hold on to their guns." It also lists signs of suicidal behavior.
In August 2011, the group mailed their materials to 65 gun shops in New Hampshire. Four months later, the group followed up, dropping by to see if stores were using the materials. Close to half of the shops were.
"The dealers who chose not to participate, I think, in time will see the value in it," Demicco said, adding that they worked hard to make the project's language "nontoxic" to dealers and gun owners for whom suicide remains a controversial topic.
Some who declined to be involved worry that acknowledging the gun industry has a role to play in suicide prevention could be fodder for lawsuits or gun control groups to ague they're not doing enough, Demicco said.
Demicco said his shop has sent people away "madder than hoot owls" when he wouldn't sell them a weapon, but he doesn't recall any formal allegations of discrimination. He said most denials are because a person lacks basic firearm knowledge, but others were denied because something about them gave him or his employees pause. Demicco said his workers were never under any pressure to make sales, but taking on the project has helped his business make better decisions.