Suicide prevention: How to ‘remove means’ when it’s a gun

Lock and Talk is part of a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention in Chesterfield County being implemented by the Chesterfield Suicide Awareness and Prevention Coalition in partnership with Chesterfield County Mental Health Support Services and Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. I am part of the suicide coalition.

The goal is to:

  • Prevent suicides by restricting access to firearms, medications, and other potentially dangerous items during a mental health crisis
  • Educate the community about how to recognize and respond to warning signs of suicide

This is not an appeal to change current second amendment laws but an initiative for working within the laws as they are now to reduce the number of suicides which has risen 30% across the country from 1999 to 2015. Fifty-one percent of deaths by firearm in the US are suicides and 65% of all gun deaths in Virginia were suicides, (33% were homicides.)
The American Foundation of Suicide Prevention is also focusing on this initiative to reduce suicides by firearm by 2025.

Go straight to the section on how I remove means when the firearm owner agrees that it’s a temporary necessity until the crisis has dissipated

Go straight to the section of creative ideas no matter what state you are in to reduce access to firearms when a person is in crisis or a depressive episode.

Removing Means

When someone is experiencing a mental health crisis, one of the recommendations is to “remove means.” When someone is planning a suicide by firearm this would mean asking for the person to voluntarily give up their weapon to you, or another friend or family member for safekeeping until that mental health crisis has passed.

You might think the person is determined to die by suicide because they sound determined but as a person who has used my ASIST suicide prevention training over one hundred times since being trained, that is not the case. Because suicidal thinking is a temporary, often trance-like state of mind where the person feels they are a burden and the world would be better off without them.

But if the suicidal person is willing to surrender their weapon, what do you do with it? What’s legal? What’s safe? The first consideration is to keep yourself safe! Never enter a situation that could put your own life at risk.

Why is securing firearms important to suicide prevention?

At the bottom of this article, I’ve included other tactics people have used in any state to reduce access to firearms when someone is in crisis increasing chances that the person will not use their firearm to kill themselves. That’s because if we can put time between thought and action, we have a far better chance of saving a life.

Because firearms are so lethal, those who attempt suicide by firearm are more likely to die by suicide. As much as 85-95% of all firearm suicide attempts result in death compared with less than 5% of all other attempts combined. (source So attempts such as medication overdose have a greater percentage of survival, giving a person a second chance to work through their crisis and find meaning and purpose in life again.

Because we know that oftentimes, those who attempt suicide often feel differently even five minutes later. And how many of those who have died by self-inflicted gunshot would have told you five minutes later that they wouldn’t dream of killing themselves? Many teens have told me that after they took a bottle of pills in that moment of suicidal thinking then five minutes later ran to tell a parent in a desperate effort to live. That’s what we mean when we say “putting time between thought and action.” This graph might help you understand that process.

How to remove a firearm within Virginia state laws

With permission from Lock & Talk, I am posting the words from their manual on how to do this within Virginia state laws. This could also be helpful for those of you in other states but please check with law enforcement or gun shops to see if these apply to where you live. It’s good, responsible firearm ownership to have a plan in the event that someone you love is suffering a mental health crisis.

FAQs about the Message, “Hold onto their guns.”

  • Q: I don’t have any kind of special permit to have a gun, so am I even allowed to hold onto someone’s gun when they are in crisis?
  • A: Yes. Unless you are prohibited under Federal/State laws.*
  • Q: What happens if I intervene, hold onto their firearm(s) but they find the firearm and use it to kill themselves after I return it to them? Am I liable for their death?
  • A: Ultimately, we cannot control whether a person does or does not die by suicide. This means from the start that trying to reassure them and get them to agree to seek help does not make you responsible in any way if they suicide later. You are encouraged to reach out and plant seeds of hope, connect them to resources, and help keep them safe for now.

    This may include holding onto their firearms. There is no specific recommended time to return firearms as this will vary from individual to individual but not holding firearms for safety in the immediate crisis increases the danger they will make an impulsive decision to use it on themselves (and perhaps someone else.) If you are in a situation where you are working with their mental health care provider, consult them about an appropriate time to return firearms and have conversions with the individual in recovery. If there is an immediate concern, contact your local law enforcement agency.

  • Q: I heard if someone gets professional help or if the cops come and the person has to be hospitalized in a psych ward, they can’t ever have a gun again. Is that true?
  • A: No. If the person voluntarily seeks help, even if admitted to a psychiatric facility, there will be no report made to the state police department or entry into their database which would limit their right to own, transport or carry a firearm once they return home.

    If the person does not voluntarily receive help in a crisis in an Emergency Custody Order (ECO) may be issued for them to get to the next step of care. If it is determined they may need hospitalization, there will be a commitment hearing. If the hearing determines they will be hospitalized at that point, the Institutionalization will go into the state police database and their ability to purchase, carry or transport firearms is lost. At a future time in recovery, a person may petition the court for restoration of gun rights.

  • Q: I am afraid to even touch a gun, let alone hold it in my house for somebody. How can I be of any help?
  • A: Work with the person at risk to find out someone else they trust to store the firearm(s). Let them help you discover the most suitable options. If you cannot come to a decision about it, call your local sheriff’s office and ask for advice. They may be willing to store it briefly and talk through the situation with you to help identify other resources. Remember, it is in the person-at-risk’s best interest to plan gun storage with you, as opposed to being helped involuntarily and having firearms confiscated.**
  • Q: What do I do with a gun if I am carrying it from their house to another in a vehicle?
  • A: You may carry a firearm in a vehicle by properly securing it in a container or compartment in the vehicle. This is defined as the trunk, center console, or glove box. Transport a firearm safely and in a manner that is not accessible to the operator or passengers. Lock whenever possible.
  • Q: Don’t all cops hold guns as long as necessary if somebody is suicidal?
  • A: No. While some will keep a gun at the station during the immediate crisis, if no one else is available to take it, they do not have the capacity to store it long term and will ask an immediate family member who can safely store it/them until the individual recovers. (note from Anne Moss. This varies by county. In some counties, the officers will keep a firearm until the owner comes and picks it up.)
  • Q: If someone has to be hospitalized and they lose their gun rights, they can’t hunt again or anything like that, right?
  • A: If the individual recovers and feels ready to have use of firearms again, they may petition for their gun rights to be restored. This law is built to protect civil liberties and all individuals deemed mentally healthy.
  • Q: If someone is subject to a protective order, can they still have guns?
  • A: A person subject to a protective order may still own and store firearms. The person shall not transport, carry, or purchase firearms or ammunition wile a protective order is in effect.

If you have other questions related to the state of Virginia, I can reach out to Lock and Talk and probably find out the answer. If you are from another state, please add your ideas if you know and we welcome questions from you, too. Please leave your state or country if you make a comment.

If you want to do something like this in your area of Virginia or in another state, do partner with an organization locally or partner with your local chapter of the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention for this initiative. Restricting means, whether medications that have overdose potential or firearms does prevent suicide because in the immediate crisis, a person might not have complete control over themselves in that intense moment and their wish to stop the immediate pain can trigger them to grab what is handy and available. Minutes and even hours later, they don’t feel the same way. And we know that those who have attempted suicide and lived have expressed regret.

*Is under indictment for or has been convicted of a felony. Is a fugitive from justice. Is an unlawful user of a controlled substance (addiction). Has been adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution, is an illegal alien, has been dishonorably discharged from the armed forces, has renounced his or her citizenship, is subject to a court order issued after a hearing which retrains him/her from intimate partner violence or has been convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense.

**Note from Anne Moss: At an AFSP conference one of the participants said in his state of Arkansas, he would tell people to secure a firearm in a locked trunk of a car. Hatchback probably won’t work.

The Q & A section on this post is from the Virginia Lock & Talk nonprofit manual and reproduced here with permission.

Creative ways to secure firearms when someone is in an emotional crisis

Ideally, ammo is separate from firearm and firearm stored offsite. However, many families are not willing to do that so it’s important to work with that family to arrive at a solution they find acceptable for them.

  • Have a friend keep the firing pin in your firearm or multiple firearms
  • One man used a cable lock on his rifle after hunting season, put that key in a bucket with water and freeze it. So if he wanted to get it, he had to really work for it (this puts time between thought and action)
  • One rancher in Wyoming would allow his wife to notice when he was slipping into an episode of depression and therefore give her the keys to his firearms until the episode dissipated
  • Change the combo on the lock temporarily to (a partner/friend)
  • Drill a hole in his lockbox, slip his key in when depressed, partner had key
  • Lock the firearm in a fellow firearm owner’s trunk (check state regs)
  • Allow a friend to hold your firearm until the crisis has passed over (check state regs)
  • In five states, New Jersey, Maryland, Mississippi, Colorado, Washington State, at the time of this revision (12/15/2021) there are places one can legally and temporarily store a firearm with no questions asked.

Example from the Maryland safe storage map web page: “This map was developed to help community members seeking local options for temporary, voluntary firearm storage. Out-of-home gun storage can be especially helpful to persons in crisis at risk for suicide. As of the spring of 2020, the businesses and law enforcement agencies listed on this map are willing to consider requests for temporary, voluntary gun storage.”

Resources for means removal (means removal refers to removing that which someone might use to kill themselves in order to increase chances that a loved one won’t die by suicide.)


Published by

AnneMoss Rogers

AnneMoss Rogers is a mental health and suicide education expert, mental health speaker, suicide prevention trainer and consultant. She is author of the Book, Diary of a Broken Mind and co-author of Emotionally Naked: A Teacher's Guide to Preventing Suicide and Recognizing Students at Risk with Kim O'Brien PhD, LICSW. She raised two boys, Richard and Charles, and lost her younger son, Charles to addiction and suicide on June 5, 2015. She is a motivational speaker who empowers by educating and provides life saving strategies and emotionally healthy coping skills. As talented and funny as Charles was, letting other people know they matter was his greatest gift. And now that's the legacy she carries forward in her son's memory. Mental Health Speakers Website.

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