A Turning Point For Talking About Suicide And Guns In Wyoming Wyoming has the highest suicide rate in the U.S., and two-thirds of the state's suicides are by firearm. Like much of the West, Wyoming's gun ownership rates are high, and gun culture is strong. The state's relationship with guns has made suicide prevention efforts tough, but that may be changing.

A Turning Point For Talking About Suicide And Guns In Wyoming

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. All this week on the program, we're talking in-depth about guns and gun violence in America. More than 31,000 people die by gun in this country every year. Typically, when we talk about gun deaths, we often focus on homicides, as we did yesterday with the story of Charles Foster Jr.

SIEGEL: But today, we're going to focus on a fact that many find surprising. Nearly two-thirds of those 31,000 gun deaths are suicides. We head now to Wyoming. The state has the highest suicide rate in the nation. In fact, Wyoming has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. And two-thirds of those suicides are by firearm.

BLOCK: As in much of the West, gun ownership rates in Wyoming are high, and the gun culture there is strong. So talk about guns and suicide has been rare. But NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, that may be starting to change.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Last year, there were more suicides in Natrona County than anywhere else in Wyoming, and Connie Jacobson saw them all.

CONNIE JACOBSON: Yeah. As the Natrona County coroner, it's alarming.

SIEGLER: Soft-spoken Jacobson is sitting in her office above the morgue, where the bodies of the suicide victims are brought. It's on the outskirts of the small, windswept city of Casper. She puts on her glasses and flips through some recent charts.

JACOBSON: My last suicide was a week ago. And yes, it was a male with a gunshot wound.

SIEGLER: That fits a pattern. In Wyoming, it's mostly men who kill themselves, and most use guns. It's a grim reality Jacobson knows professionally and personally.

JACOBSON: Twenty years ago, my husband died by suicide. And also, his brother died later that same year, by suicide.

SIEGLER: Was it by firearm - do you mind if I ask?

JACOBSON: Both of them were.

SIEGLER: In her spare time, Jacobson now volunteers for local suicide prevention efforts. She says it's one of the biggest public health problems facing Wyoming. For her, the key is keeping people away from any lethal means during a time of crisis.

JACOBSON: You know, if a person is suicidal and is serious about it, they're going to find a method.

SIEGLER: But talking about the preferred method in Wyoming - guns - has never been easy here. Asked what her own relationship is with guns, Jacobson pauses.

JACOBSON: I guess I've never thought about that. Nobody's ever asked me about that. I have a nice relationship with guns. I was a sport shooter for many, many years after my husband died. I hunt. I appreciate a firearm. So I have no problem with firearms.

SIEGLER: And that's Wyoming. Guns are a part of everyday life here. The state's gun laws are among the most lax in the nation. It's not uncommon to see someone carrying in a holster, in a Walmart; or openly, in the back of a pickup. And even if a town's too small for a gas station or bar, chances are there's still a gun dealer. Keith Hotle is the state's suicide prevention team leader at the Wyoming Department of Health. He says limiting the availability of guns would be the best way to lower the suicide rate.

KEITH HOTLE: That's - simply - repeatedly proven by the evidence. I mean, if you've got access to guns, your rates are going to be higher. So Wyoming and our other states around us, and states like Alaska, perennially have the highest rates.

SIEGLER: But coupling suicide prevention with a hot-button issue like gun control, is a nonstarter here.

HOTLE: If I go into any community in Wyoming and say, you know, suicide's a real problem; we'd like you to take away your guns, or we'd like to put these controls on them - you know, I'll be run out of town.

SIEGLER: So instead, Hotle says you have to separate the two - the protection of the Second Amendment, in one corner; and curbing suicide by stressing firearm safety, in the other. That's at the heart of a report Hotle recently helped write at the request of Gov. Matt Mead. It recommends public awareness campaigns that urge people to keep their guns locked in their homes, and keep the keys away from vulnerable people during a crisis. The report also asks people who sell guns to get involved; calling on store owners to provide locks, and raise red flags if a customer looks depressed.

UNIDENTIFIED EMPLOYEE: Guns, you have a call on line two, second call. Guns, line two, second call.

SIEGLER: Even at 2 o'clock on a weekday, the sales floor at Rocky Mountain Discount Sports, in Casper, is bustling. Young men in baseball caps and muddy Carhartt jeans pore over glass display cases full of ammo and handguns.

SHAWN WAGNER,: We sell the cable locks. We don't have a whole lot of these right now. But trigger lock...

SIEGLER: The store's owner, Shawn Wagner, says most guns already come with some sort of safety lock. And he also tells his staff to give them away, if a customer asks. Wagner considers himself the first line of defense.

WAGNER: You can kind of read a person's state of mind, and we are giving them a deadly weapon if it's not treated correctly.

SIEGLER: Wagner started getting involved in suicide prevention in Casper a couple of years ago, after he intervened to stop his own brother from killing himself. But he doubts there's much of a connection between the state's gun culture and its high suicide rate. He thinks it's more to do with the cowboy culture.

WAGNER: The Marlboro cowboy didn't go and get mental health - you know, appointments, and talk it out with his shrink, you know. And that's kind of the mentality of Wyoming - is man up; you're a man.

SIEGLER: Life in Wyoming can also be isolating. People live far from services. And frankly, it can be pretty lonely. There are fewer than 600,000 people in a state that covers more than 97,000 square miles.

MADY SCHMIDT: I hear people all the time, you know, say about some places in Wyoming, you know, there's nothing to do there but get pregnant and get drunk.

SIEGLER: Mady Schmidt has lived in Casper her whole life. The 17-year-old junior at Kelly Walsh High, looks like an ordinary teenager. Her hair is carefully done. She's wearing makeup and stylish clothes. But underneath all of this, Mady battles deep bouts of depression and thoughts of suicide. Most of it, she traces to losing her brother, Evan. When Evan was just 11, he shot himself with one of the family's guns in their home.

SCHMIDT: I can't even explain how much that I would give back just to have my brother back, you know?

SIEGLER: Her family got rid of all of the guns in their house, after Evan died. And Mady shares her experience, and talks openly about suicide and mental illness, as she travels around the county, talking to schools. She's not afraid to talk about the role of guns, either, even though she's not sure the issue is black and white.

SCHMIDT: I'm so in the middle because I see - you know, points on both sides, you know? Of course, yeah, I mean, what if we just outlawed all guns? But then I think about, well, things like meth are illegal.

SIEGLER: It's hard to find someone in Wyoming without some connection to suicide that involved a firearm. Just a few years ago, that connection was rarely talked about publicly. State suicide prevention officials here say this openness, if nothing else, signals some progress.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow, we continue our series on guns in America, with a conversation with Vice President Joe Biden. He's leading the White House's efforts on gun control.

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