Wall Street Journal 12/22/23 – Bristlecone Mention

How Gun Shops Are Helping Prevent Suicide
Groups have set up arrangements where people in crisis can get firearms
out of their homes

By Zusha Elinson
Updated Dec. 22, 2023 10:37 am ET

After leaving the Navy, Ronell Day struggled. His wide smile disappeared. He fought with his
new wife. He cut off contact with his parents after confronting them about childhood abuse.
He often thought of suicide.

Day decided to take action after talking to a friend about a new initiative in Louisiana called
the Armory Project that encourages veterans in crisis to store their firearms outside the
home. He turned over his two handguns and two rifles for safekeeping at a gun shop outside of
New Orleans. “I wasn’t in a stable place,” Day said. “I got my firearms out of the house.”
Gun shops are emerging as an avenue for suicide prevention by holding firearms for owners
who are going through difficult times. The new approach comes as suicides reach record levels
in the U.S. There were approximately 27,000 gun suicides in 2022, according to the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention.

Groups in Colorado and Washington state have recruited and publicized gun dealers willing to
hold on to guns in recent years. States like Louisiana and Montana have tweaked their laws
over the past two years so that gun shops and individuals don’t face liability for holding other
people’s guns. A nonprofit called Hold My Guns has been promoting the idea at the leading
trade show for the gun industry.

“A lot of gun owners are afraid to speak up if there’s a mental health crisis in the home,” said
Sarah Joy Albrecht, a shooting range safety officer from Pennsylvania who founded Hold My
Guns. “Gun shops are a place that gun owners trust—they know that their rights matter to the
people running the gun shop.”

Alternatives such as dropping guns at police stations or involving the authorities can result in
losing those guns for good. The eight gun shops around the country that work with Hold My
Guns have stored 118 firearms this year, up from five last year, Albrecht said.

Gun-store owners, like the one at Allegheny Arms & Gun Works, make it a policy not to pry, a practice they say
makes gun owners more comfortable. Such gun storage initiatives represent a rare point of agreement in a country bitterly divided
over firearms.

“It’s not about politics, it’s not an angry argument over gun law, it’s about how we can work
together on an option that is voluntary, but might help people in crisis,” said Dr. Emmy Betz,
director of the Firearm Injury Prevention Center at the University of Colorado School of
Medicine. Betz and other public health officials allied with gun dealers to create that state’s
program. “It feels like a very practical solution,” she said.

That practical solution was a legal puzzle at first. Licensed dealers are allowed to buy, sell,
trade or repair firearms. There is no provision for storing guns for a person in crisis, so gun
shops generally treat it like a transaction in which the individual is putting firearms on
consignment. Dealers charge a nominal fee for storage. When the person is ready to pick up
their firearms, they must undergo a background check as if they were making a purchase.
In contrast to red-flag laws, which allow authorities to seize guns from people threatening
harm to themselves or others, gun storage is entirely voluntary. Concerned family members
aren’t allowed to bring someone else’s guns into a shop.

Gun shops advertise the service with brochures or on their websites. Groups maintain online
maps of participating dealers. Gun-store owners make it a policy not to pry, a practice they
say makes gun owners more comfortable while also limiting their own liability.
“We don’t ask questions and we don’t pass on information,” said Josh Rowe, co-owner of
Allegheny Arms & Gun Works outside of Pittsburgh. Rowe, an Air Force veteran and former firefighter, said he started working with Hold My Guns
after multiple acquaintances from those circles died by suicide in recent years.
“I don’t have time to devote to activism,” Rowe said. “But I looked at it and I said, ‘This is low hanging fruit.’”

Some gun shops have devised unusual methods for encouraging people who don’t like to talk
about their problems to use the service. Bristlecone Shooting, Training & Retail Center in
Lakewood, Colo., now offers engraving or gunsmithing services where the shop holds on to
the guns for 30 days. “The idea for this came from, ‘How do we create a motivation for storing their firearms if they
don’t want to admit there’s something wrong?’” said Jacquelyn Clark, the shop’s owner and
founding member of the Colorado coalition.

The gun shop storage movement was an evolution of an informal practice among some gun
owners who held on to guns for friends in crisis. In Louisiana, the Armory Project, an
initiative of the Department of Veterans Affairs, sought to formalize it by recruiting dealers to
help. Some dealers were skeptical at first, worried that the program focused too much on the guns
and not the underlying psychological struggles, said Gala True, a professor at the Louisiana
State University School of Medicine and researcher with the Department of Veterans Affairs
who helps run the Armory Project. “We’re very clear that we’re focused on suicide prevention and secure firearm storage as part
of responsible firearm ownership, but not trying to take away people’s firearms,” True said.
The project now has more than a dozen dealers around the state.

Day, now 32 years old, joined the Navy out of high school. Far away from home at bases in
Japan, Maryland and Virginia, he thrived, winning the sailor-of-the-year award. He medically
Gun shops advertise the storage service with brochures or on their websites. He retired in 2019 and returned to Louisiana.

He bought firearms to protect himself in the high crime New Orleans area. His favorite was a custom purple AR-style weapon that he
nicknamed “Lavish.” Back home, he was overwhelmed by a storm of anxiety and depression as he started to
confront the abuse from his childhood. With ADHD, he struggled to keep his impulses in
check. One time, he pulled a handgun out of his safe. But he thought of his three sons and put
it back.

He got divorced and remarried but fought constantly with his new wife. One night two years
ago, he punched a mirror in frustration. Blood spurted from his arm, sending him to the
Ronell Day felt relieved that the gun-store employees didn’t ask questions when he brought in his
firearms. Four months later, after taking courses on how to manage his emotions, he felt stable
enough to get his guns back.

Day was scheduled to volunteer with True at a gun show in New Orleans the next day to
promote the Armory Project. When he arrived, arm bandaged and looking down, True asked
him if he was OK. He opened up, telling her he was afraid of what he might do.
“I told her I wanted to get my firearms out of my house,” he said.
He brought his guns to the Neutral Ground Gun Company in Arabi, La., and felt relieved that
the employees didn’t ask questions.

Day separated from his wife. He took courses on how to manage his emotions. After four
months, he felt stable enough to get his guns back. He found a strong sense of purpose, taking
a job as community engagement partnership coordinator for the suicide prevention team at
the Department of Veterans Affairs.

He bought a home and started a side business, DJing at weddings. He spent lots of time with
his sons. His smile returned. Now, Day shares his own experience with veterans in crisis, including the crucial moment
when he gave up his guns.

“There’s beauty in the fight,” he tells them. “There’s strength in vulnerability.”

Help is available: Reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National
Suicide Prevention Lifeline) by dialing or texting 988. Veterans can press 1 for the Veterans
Crisis Line.
Write to Zusha Elinson at zusha.elinson@wsj.com