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Gun store owners would play role in suicide prevention under proposed bill

Bill would allow retailers and shooting ranges to offer a place for people in crisis to safely store guns

guns on wall at a store
In this photo taken March 15, 2017, AR-15 style rifles made by Battle Rifle Co., a gunmaker in Webster, Texas, are on display in its retail shop. Lisa Marie Pane/AP Photo

Gun retailers would be included in suicide prevention work under a new proposal being circulated around the Wisconsin State Capitol by GOP lawmakers.

The bill would allow people who sell guns to provide voluntary gun storage for customers or community members who are at risk of suicide.

It would also provide grant funding to train people who sell guns in recognizing when a customer is in distress and to make suicide prevention materials available at gun stores and ranges.

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“This ability to go to a gun shop — a trusted, respected gun shop owner (or) business — is just another step to safekeep guns,” said state Sen. Jesse James, R-Altoona, who co-authored the bill. “To keep them out of people’s hands if they want to harm themselves or die by suicide.

Suicide has been on the rise in Wisconsin in recent years, and guns are the leading method of death by suicide, according to the state health department.

The bill, which has received bipartisan cosponsorship, would allocate $75,000 per year for two years to groups and municipalities to partner with gun sellers and ranges on these suicide prevention programs.

The voluntary and temporary gun storage would give people at risk of suicide a safe place to relinquish weapons without involving law enforcement, James said.

“Having that opportunity available in removing law enforcement from the picture, I think is a huge benefit, because not everybody, obviously, likes cops,” said James, who was formerly Altoona’s police chief.

Similar legislation has been proposed in the past but did not make it to a vote. James said he worked to clarify to members of the GOP caucus that the gun storage would be voluntary, temporary and would not violate a person’s right to privacy.

In 2021, a similar bill received support from the Medical College of Wisconsin and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, among other groups.

According to testimony submitted by MCW’s suicide prevention leaders in support of that bill, access to a gun strongly increases the likelihood that a person who attempts suicide will succeed.

“Making safe storage of firearms as accessible and easy as possible for someone in crisis buys precious time to intervene,” the testimony reads. “Oftentimes, patients are open to storing their firearm elsewhere temporarily, while working through their crisis, but do not have someone that they trust to give the firearm to. This legislation would address this barrier by opening options for safe firearm storage.”

More than two-thirds of firearm deaths in Wisconsin are deaths by suicide, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun violence prevention group.

Some firearm retailers have already taken it upon themselves to lower that number. Such work is often affiliated with “The Gun Shop Project,” which allows retailers to share resources with one another for how to reach potentially suicidal customers.

This legislation would offer those businesses more resources, James said.

According to a 2020 report by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the state’s suicide rate increased by 40 percent from 2000 to 2017.

Certain groups are at significantly higher risk of dying by suicide. Men, particularly who are white or Indigenous, LGBTQ people, veterans and people living in rural areas are most at risk, according to the state health department.

A spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers did not respond to a request for comment. Evers has declared 2023 the Year of Mental Health, proposing some $500 million in his biennial budget for mental health services.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call or text the three-digit suicide and crisis lifeline at 988.