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Larimer County Gun Safety Effort Shifts To Include Suicide

Content warning: this story discusses suicide.

In 2018, Emily Humphrey, who was then the Second Assistant District Attorney in Larimer County, noticed some disturbing trends: kids were committing crimes with guns, a few died messing around with guns and hundreds of firearms were being stolen from cars. In response, she assembled a working group of stakeholders, including law enforcement, medical experts, and school district representatives.

“And so the first thing we talked about, ‘Well, if they don't have access to the guns, then we won't have these tragedies. And how do we go about doing that?’” Humphrey said.

The group decided on an educational campaign focused on safe gun storage. The Larimer County Juvenile Gun Safety Coalition has given pamphlets to gun shops, handed out gun locks to parents at school meetings and produced a promotional video, encouraging safe storage.

“To get law enforcement involved was difficult but once they understood our mission that it wasn’t anti-gun but safe, responsible gun ownership, they were all on board,” Humphrey explained.

The original idea behind the project was to prevent youth homicides and accidents by encouraging adults to lock up their guns. But now, as kids spend more time at home and coronavirus stressors persist, that original focus is expanding to include teen suicide prevention.

The idea came to Humphrey last year, during a roundtable discussion with the Colorado Attorney General’s office where she heard about a video from the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition.

“Not to freak you out or anything, but the leading cause of death in Utah for teens is suicide. And nearly half of those suicides are from firearms. And sorry but they’re usually yours,” several teens explain, looking into the camera. “Keep your guns and ammo locked up safely.”

Humphrey said the video gave her chills.

“That was like, oh my goodness, I can't even imagine. So that was when it hit home that this is something that we need to add to our coalition,” Humphrey explained.

“The vast majority of firearms-related deaths in the United States are suicides and not homicides or assaults or drive-bys.”
Marshall Spring

With gun sales surging and pandemic-related mental health concerns rising, the suicide prevention aspect of the coalition has become even more important. In June, a survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found elevated levels of mental health challenges, thoughts of suicide and substance abuse especially among young adults.

But suicide concerns are not new. In Larimer County, 28 young people died by firearm suicide between 2008 and 2018. According to a new report from Everytown for Gun Safety, the rate of firearm suicide among American kids has increased by more than 50% over the last decade. Suicides overall have been steadily rising too; the scale of the problem is huge.

“The vast majority of firearms-related deaths in the United States are suicides and not homicides or assaults or drive-bys,” said Marshall Spring when he joined Larimer County’s Juvenile Gun Safety Coalition.

Spring is a combat veteran and gun owner who works on suicide prevention efforts in the county, doing everything from educating military members on suicide before they become veterans to teaching gun store employees how to identify someone in crisis.

“Firearms are as ubiquitous today as, you know, a personal computer or a bicycle,” he said by way of explaining why firearms education is for everyone. “It is important regardless of your relationship with firearms to at least have a base level understanding about what they are about simply because they are part of our landscape in our community and that's not something that is going to change.”

Emily Humphrey says the Juvenile Gun Safety Coalition was planning to get firearm suicide prevention curriculum into schools this year, but coronavirus restrictions have complicated that effort. Instead, they are working on reaching students on social media, getting pamphlets into schools and doctor’s offices and producing a safe storage promotional video.

Humphrey acknowledges that the effectiveness of these efforts will be hard to measure.

“If we can help one child, prevent a tragedy from happening then we’ve won. I guess you’ve got to look at the positive and not necessarily the negatives,” Humphrey said. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to do this work for very long.”

The Colorado Attorney General’s office has held at least two stakeholder meetings involving the Larimer County Gun Safety Coalition with an interest in taking the program statewide, but has no timeline yet for doing so.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the Colorado Crisis Services 24-hour hotline: 1-844-493-TALK

As KUNC's Senior Editor and Reporter, my job is to find out what’s important to northern Colorado residents and why. I seek to create a deeper sense of urgency and understanding around these issues through in-depth, character driven daily reporting and series work.