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'Safe storage' helps keep suicidal gun owners from using their weapons

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

More than half the gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides. And preventing those deaths is one area where opposing sides of the gun debate have found common ground. They both like the idea of safe storage, handing over your firearm to a friend or a gun shop if you're thinking of hurting yourself. But as Montana Public Radio's Aaron Bolton reports, there are significant obstacles to making it work.

AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: At Capital Sports, a gun shop in Helena, Mont., firearm sales have boomed in recent years, but owner Ed Beal says so have sales of items that keep guns locked up and safe.

ED BEAL: We'll start with safe storage. There you go. You start with trigger locks - very basic - little vaults so you can get to them quick.

BOLTON: Locks and safes can keep firearms away from kids, keep them from being stolen and might even save lives if someone at home is feeling suicidal.

BEAL: Like, our No. 1 seller is right here.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEYPAD BUTTONS BEEPING)

BOLTON: It's a tall, narrow, metal safe that can hold long guns like rifles and also smaller pistols. Here, they always encourage customers to keep their guns locked up. But more recently, public health officials have asked Beal to store guns for people in crisis. But he's undecided.

BEAL: I'm not really sure that firearms dealers doing hold agreements is the best idea or not.

BOLTON: A few states such as Maryland and Colorado have published what are called safe storage maps online. The maps identify locations like gun shops where people can store their guns if they are in crisis. Montana is building its own map now. But state and federal gun laws make it more complicated than it seems in theory. Hammer Down Firearms is a gun shop outside Denver, and it's on the safe storage map for Colorado. But co-owner Chris Jandro says only two people have ever actually used the service.

CHRIS JANDRO: There's not a dealer that we don't know that doesn't want to stop this madness, you know, with people and depression. And especially over these last three years, people are just more depressed than they've ever been. I mean, we see it.

BOLTON: Jandro says people do ask him about storing their guns, but many customers back out once they hear that they'll need to pass a background check later when they come back to get their gun. And the background check includes questions about mental health treatment. Getting treatment doesn't necessarily disqualify someone from getting the gun back, but the questions are confusing. Jandro says these are people in crisis.

JANDRO: It does trip people up.

BOLTON: In 2021, the Biden administration announced its support for the creation of more safe storage maps, but it also reminded gun dealers that they still had to do background checks. NPR requested an interview with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which regulates gun shops, but did not receive a response. Jandro and other gun shop owners say it's just easier to have friends and family store firearms for someone who is suicidal. And it is easier under federal law. But in some places like New York and Massachusetts, state laws can make that option almost impossible, according to Harvard's Cathy Barber.

CATHY BARBER: In New York state, you might be a licensed gun owner, but you're still not supposed to hold on to somebody's guns because you're supposed to register each individual gun.

BOLTON: The only way around it is for both people to go to a gun shop together and do the paperwork for an ownership transfer.

BARBER: Not only do you need a background check, but you're supposed to have the license for the particular gun.

BOLTON: Other states require less paperwork, but only if you're a close family member. It's still a lot harder for friends to help. Overall, these legal hurdles just take too long during a psychiatric crisis. Dr. Emmy Betz is a public health researcher in Colorado.

EMMY BETZ: It's a great idea for transfer laws or background check laws to have that clause that allows transfers for prevention of suicide. It would make it easier for you to give your gun to your cousin, for example.

BOLTON: That's what they did in Washington state. Before, only immediate family members could hold onto guns. But a recent change to the law now allows extended family members and friends to hold a gun if suicide is a risk. Dr. Fred Rivara is with the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center in Seattle. He supported the new law but says it only helps families in his state.

FRED RIVARA: I think that's part of the problem, is that first of all, these laws are different in each of the 50 states. And what one state may say may be different than another state may say. And a lot of states are pretty silent on this whole issue of temporary storage of firearms.

BOLTON: Rivara says it will take time to address these gaps. But he says the first step to saving a life is being willing to reach out to a loved one in crisis to let them know you care and want to keep them safe. For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton in Helena, Mont.

SUMMERS: The story comes from NPR's partnership with Montana Public Radio and KFF Health News. And if you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, just those three digits, 9-8-8. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.