In Gun State Of Wyoming, Suicide Prevention Aims For Firearm Safety Discussing gun control is not easy in Wyoming, which has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the country. But it also has the highest per capita suicide rate, and guns are usually involved. One grieving mother is trying to boost awareness while respecting the state's gun culture.

Battling Suicide In A 'Gun State' Means Treading Carefully

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As America continues to debate gun rights and gun laws, there's one statistic you may have missed. Each year, two-thirds of all firearm deaths are suicides. In Wyoming, the problem is especially severe. The state has the highest per capita suicide rate in the nation. It also has one of the highest rates of gun ownership. NPR's Kirk Siegler traveled to Wyoming, where he met a woman who has turned her grief into action.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Guns are a big part of everyday life in Wyoming, where it's also not hard to find someone who's been directly impacted by suicide in which guns were the lethal means. I'm here in downtown Cheyenne walking over to an office about to meet a woman with one of those very tragic stories.

Just realized I'm a couple minutes late.

BJ AYERS: Oh, that's all right.

SIEGLER: BJ Ayers's Grace For 2 Brothers Foundation is in a small basement office. We sit down at a long wooden table in a shared conference room.

AYERS: I got involved, I guess, volunteering, or, you know, just learning about suicide after Brett's death. And then when Beau died in August of 2009 - he was 26 - I just really felt compelled to do something.

SIEGLER: So, she started her suicide prevention foundation named after Brett, her 19-year-old son who took his own life in 2005, and Beau, her oldest son, who killed himself in 2009. Both shot themselves.

AYERS: I can say woulda, coulda, shoulda, or, you know, if only. But I can't go back and do that. So, I think it's just very important for people to realize that, you know, having that access to a firearm can be very tragic, and in our family it was.

SIEGLER: Suicide isn't easy to talk about. And in a state like Wyoming, its connection to guns makes it even tougher.

AYERS: It's not that we want to take the gun away from the gun owner. We know that we have responsible gun owners in Wyoming. It's, you know, Wyoming is a gun state. We're rich in that history.

SIEGLER: But the simple fact is a gun is used in about three-quarters of all suicides in Wyoming. Nationally, guns are used about 50 percent of the time. But here, Ayers says you have to divorce guns and suicide.

AYERS: I think gun control is at one end of a very long table and access to lethal means is at the other end of that very long table, and I think they're two different things.

SIEGLER: So, Ayers says suicide prevention has to be focused on firearm safety. That is, requiring that locks be included with all gun purchases. A lot of her work is also in education; stressing to people that guns should be locked away in homes, and teaching everyone how to talk to people who may be suicidal, and get them immediate help. These days, Ayers is not alone in this effort either.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Anyone. I can't take this any longer. This ends now.

SIEGLER: A broad suicide prevention campaign launched recently by the Wyoming Department of Health includes dramatic PSAs like this one. BJ Ayers and her story are also featured prominently in a series of web videos. She also tells her story traveling around the state as one of Wyoming's four suicide prevention coordinators. She says the suicide problem is starting to be talked about more. And for Ayers, this talk is not just about the tough subject of access to guns. Her 19-year-old son Brett refused help when he was battling his mental illness.

AYERS: I think we have a cultural norm here in Wyoming where, for lack of a better word, you know, cowboy up, you know, be tough, you know, don't - it's not OK to get help and that's what we want, we want to break that stigma and realize that it's OK.

SIEGLER: One way Grace For 2 Brothers is trying to break that stigma is through an annual suicide prevention walk here in Cheyenne. The first one in 2010 drew a crowd of a couple hundred; next month, Ayers expects more than 700 people. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.


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