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.

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 and irrational state of mind where the person feels they are a burden and the world would be better off without them.

But how do you get the weapon and what do you do with it? What’s legal? What’s safe?

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 Fondation 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.

Published by

Anne Moss Rogers

I am an emotionally naked TEDx speaker, and author of the Book, Diary of a Broken Mind and co-author with Kim O'Brien PhD, LICSW of Emotionally Naked: A Teacher's Guide to Preventing Suicide and Recognizing Students at Risk. I raised two boys, Richard and Charles, and lost my younger son, Charles to substance use disorder and suicide on June 5, 2015. I help people foster a culture of connection to prevent suicide, reduce substance misuse and find life after loss. My motivational, training and workshop topics include suicide prevention, addiction, mental illness, coping strategies/resilience, and grief. As talented and funny as Charles was, letting other people know they matter was his greatest gift. And now the legacy I try and carry forward in my son's memory. Professional Speaker Website. Trained in ASIST and trainer for the evidence-based 4-hour training for everyone called safeTALK.

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