A suicide prevention program teams Ohio gun shop owners with mental health services
Editor's note: This story contains discussions about suicide.
A group of local gun shop owners is partnering with the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation to launch a unique suicide prevention program in the state.
Its mission is to reduce suicide among gun owners and their families to and promote safe firearm practices.
The new program is called Life Side, and it launched last year with state funding from the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
“We know that about 60% of our suicides are gun-related and they’re the most lethal of means,” said Tony Coder, executive director of the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation.
In 2019, the CDC said 980 suicides were caused by firearms. A report from the Ohio Health Policy Institute of Ohio found that number was over 1,600 in 2020.
“So I did some research and found that Washington state had a great program where they were working with gun shop owners and took that model and brought it back to Ohio,” Coder said.
Coder approached gun shop owners with the mission to save lives and to leave politics out of the discussion. The campaign started with media tours in Butler and Franklin counties as well as Cincinnati and Cleveland.
In Central Ohio, three-gun shops partnered with the suicide prevention foundation and Life Side, including L.E.P.D in Perry Township, Blackwing Shooting Center in Delaware County and Vance Outdoors in Obetz.
“Suicide unfortunately has impacted my life numerous times,” said Joe King, range and training manager at Blackwing Shooting Center. “And I looked around, it’s like I’ll take the lead on this it’s important to all of us. This is how I’m going to give back to my community.”
King grew up sport shooting and hunting. He’s worked at Blackwing just over a decade. King ensures strict training policies and procedures for employees when people want to buy a firearm.
“We talk a lot about that gut feeling,” King said. “Where it’s kind of like, ‘hey this guy wants to buy a gun. I have this weird feeling. Safe storage is really huge with us. If a first-time gun owner leaves without some sort of lockbox, you better be telling us why.”
King says that relationship-building with customers may have helped prevent a tragedy. He recalls a story of a woman coming in, an employee sensing something was wrong, and them spending the next couple hours talking to the customer.
“She came back a couple months later, like, ‘hey you know if you didn’t take that time with me and put me on that range, I was here for that reason,’” he said.
King said that happened in 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. During what could be stressful times, like the holidays, King asks employees to be on high alert for those cases.
Another gun shop partnered with Life Side is L.E.P.D in Perry Township. It’s owned by Eric Delbert, who’s worked in law enforcement for 25 years. Delbert instills similar training protocols for his employees.
“We’re selling firearms, we have a range, we’re giving access to somebody who might not have access,” Delbert said. “So we’re on the frontlines. We can impact change and that is what we hope to do.”
Delbert keeps Life Side and other suicide prevention brochures stocked near the firing range. He has also promoted the use of lockboxes in homes where children could access a firearm.
“The parents or the gun owners in that home, need to make sure that the firearm is secured if it’s not in their immediate possession,” he said. “And if we can be a part of that, get the message out, that’s a good thing as well. There is many, many facets to this.”
Both Joe King and Delbert have also elevated efforts to hold on to firearms for people who may be in a depressive state. They will hold on to those weapons until the person is ready to have it back. It’s a practice they’d like to promote further with gun shop owners and others.
Life Side continues to meet with folks to discuss mental health and firearms sans political input. Tony Coder with the Suicide Prevention Foundation, said they’re planning more community training events this year to further the mission around the state.
“Mental health professionals and gun shops doing a training together,” Coder said. “This kind of brings us all together in a commonality that we all just want people to have lives saved, to get mental health treatment and those types of things.”
Coder hopes to attract more gun shop owners, hunters, law enforcement and veterans to partner with Life Side. To get involved, visit Life Side's website.
Mental health resources are available locally and nationwide. You can reach Ohio’s 24/7 Crisis Text Line by texting 4HOPE to 741741 or call the new national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 9-8-8. Franklin County Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached at 614-221-5445 or the Teen Suicide Prevention Hotline at 614-294-3300.