In Rural Utah, Preventing Suicide Means Meeting Gun Owners Where They Are : Shots - Health News In Utah, 85% of deaths from firearms are suicides. To help people who might be vulnerable, outreach workers are discussing suicide prevention at gun shows and firearms classes.
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In Rural Utah, Preventing Suicide Means Meeting Gun Owners Where They Are

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In Rural Utah, Preventing Suicide Means Meeting Gun Owners Where They Are

In Rural Utah, Preventing Suicide Means Meeting Gun Owners Where They Are

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Utah has one of the highest rates of suicide in the country. Erik Neumann at member station KUER in Salt Lake City set out to learn how people work to prevent suicide in a state with a strong gun culture.

ERIK NEUMANN, BYLINE: The town of Vernal sits in the high desert of northeast Utah. The land is windy and dry, dotted with oil and gas fields and cattle ranches. Walking into the Vernal Knife and Gun Show (ph), you can hear pops from a corner where people are shooting pellet guns for a self-defense course. The tables are covered with shotguns, hunting rifles and a few assault-style rifles. At one booth, four women are giving out free gun locks - cables that thread through guns to prevent bullets from being loaded.

ROBIN HATCH: This is for a rifle right here. It is. And it's yours.

NEUMANN: Robin Hatch is here with Northeastern Counseling Center. The giveaways are a way to start a conversation about suicide.

HATCH: Our tricounty area is leading the state for suicide. Most of them are by firearm.

NEUMANN: It's the first time Hatch has done this at a gun show. She's also giving out free gun socks, which are fabric sleeves you slide over a gun. Hers are printed with a number for a suicide hotline.

HATCH: So could I interest you in a gun sock?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Sure.

HATCH: Would you like a pistol or a rifle?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Let's do rifle.

HATCH: What color would you like?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Blue?

HATCH: Blue. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you.

NEUMANN: Health experts say reasons for northeast Utah's high suicide rate include limited access to mental health services and the unpredictability of working in ranching or oil and gas and the stress of those jobs. Val Middleton taught oil and gas safety at a nearby technical college.

VAL MIDDLETON: Injuries and accidents and keeping a job and having a job tomorrow - and it's so up and down.

NEUMANN: Add to that - high rates of gun ownership. Dee Cairoli is a pastor in a nearby town. He also works part time as an instructor for the NRA. In his classes, he explains how gun owners can intervene for each other during a mental health crisis.

DEE CAIROLI: I've done it a couple of times as a pastor, where I've gone to somebody's house and said look - maybe you need to listen to me for a minute. I know what I'm talking about. Please, I promise I'll keep it in my safe, but let me have your gun.

NEUMANN: When Cairoli was 15, his father killed himself with a gun.

CAIROLI: It was very tragic, but, you know, I never hated the gun. I knew that it was just his desperate moment and that he had just chosen, you know, that.

NEUMANN: Cairoli can draw on this tragedy to connect with people who are in crisis. Someone else who has a similar approach is Republican state Representative Steve Eliason.

STEVE ELIASON: I've lost three extended family members to suicide - all firearm suicides, young men.

NEUMANN: Eliason has sponsored bills dealing with firearms, suicide prevention and mental health services in Utah. He calls these issues nonpartisan, but he's also careful with his strategy. He describes advice he got from a politically liberal friend in Public Health about how to bridge the gap on guns.

ELIASON: There's kind of two schools of thought on firearms. And those two schools of thought, if they were circles, they would overlap into a small oval, and that oval is a culture of safety. And she says, I would recommend that you dwell within that oval. And that's what I've tried to do.

NEUMANN: It's a strategy that also works for Robin Hatch. Along with her co-workers, she's also a gun owner, but that doesn't stop her from trying to reduce suicides.

HATCH: You need to know your community, and you need to address it in a way that your community will accept it.

NEUMANN: Compared to others at the gun show, their table was less busy. Still, they gave out lots of gun locks and gun socks with the hope that somewhere, someday those tools will help someone pause for a moment and instead ask for help.

For NPR News, I'm Erik Neumann in Salt Lake City, Utah.

GREENE: Erik's story comes to us through a partnership with NPR, KUER and Kaiser Health News. Suicide can be prevented. If you're in crisis or know someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

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