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To help prevent suicides, temporary gun storage outside the home is encouraged

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

When it comes to reducing firearm deaths, Americans quickly split into opposing camps. Even the phrase gun control is polarizing. But there is one area where people are coming together - suicide prevention. Suicides account for more than half of gun fatalities nationwide. And as Aaron Bolton at Montana Public Radio explains, one strategy involves zeroing in on not the gun itself but where it's being kept in times of crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: In the basement of his home in Helena, Mont., Mike Hossfeld has built a secure room for his collection. He has modern guns and antiques, some dating back to the 1800s. It's all behind this heavy, black steel door.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPENING DOOR)

BOLTON: But not every gun here is his.

MIKE HOSSFELD: There are a few weapons in here belong to other folks.

BOLTON: Hossfeld is storing these guns for friends or relatives who are going through a mental health crisis or simply a rough patch in life. The idea is to put space and time between the gun owners and their firearms because suicide, when it happens, is highly impulsive and often depends on what is at hand. Hossfeld emphasizes it's just for now. It's not taking the gun away forever.

HOSSFELD: That's the whole premise - is to help people to alleviate the immediate situation. But in the long run, they're able to regain their weapon.

BOLTON: In Montana, lawmakers, public health officials and gun rights advocates are coming together on this strategy. They want more people like Hossfeld to store firearms for others. In Montana, 85% of deaths involving a gun are suicides. The state has the second-highest suicide rate in the country after neighboring Wyoming. A new Montana law waives some legal liability for people who store guns for others. Lawmakers hope that will encourage more folks to do it.

JESS HEGSTROM: Hey, Pam. Do you have a table for us ready to go?

BOLTON: That's also why Jess Hegstrom is here at this gun show in Helena. She works on suicide prevention for the county. She's set up an information table and is trying to blend into a sea of camo and folks wearing pro-gun T-shirts.

HEGSTROM: I have, like, little guns on my earrings. You know, I'm like, I'm cool. I'm friendly. I'm not here to waggle my finger at you.

BOLTON: Hegstrom spends a lot of time visiting local gun shops and shooting ranges. She wants them to join a network of places where people can drop off their guns when they're in crisis.

HEGSTROM: So we're just trying to make sure that there is a wealth of options for people to safe store, especially if you can't do it on that, you know, one-on-one basis. And there's multiple locations, multiple possibilities.

BOLTON: But today, she's just trying to educate gun owners about the idea of voluntary safe storage. It's something that anybody can do for a friend.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What are you guys showing?

HEGSTROM: So I'm with a program called Safer Communities Montana. And we're just making sure that people know that if you have someone you're worried about, a friend, that you can hold on to their firearm.

BOLTON: Utah is also promoting the concept, running public service announcements like this one on TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Last year, I was at my lowest, going through some pretty serious depression. A couple friends of mine stopped by the house and said they were worried about me, said they'd feel a lot better if they could hold on to my firearms until things turned around. I think they saved my life.

BOLTON: Gun rights advocates are also coming on board and encouraging those kinds of conversations with loved ones. Jason Swant runs a sports shooting group in Helena and also operates a gun range. He says he was reluctant at first.

JASON SWANT: Simply because historically, there has been conflict between groups like ours and other groups who are concerned about the safety social issues with firearms.

BOLTON: Safe storage programs are voluntary, which he likes. But Swant was afraid of a slippery slope that could eventually lead to legal restrictions such as red-flag laws. Those laws allow courts to seize firearms from people who might harm themselves or others. But Swant joined in because he came to understand that safe storage holds real promise for reducing suicides.

SWANT: We've had a few people let us know that, somebody asked and held my firearm, and that made a difference.

BOLTON: Swann hopes the effort in Montana and similar programs in states like Washington and Colorado will eventually prove to be more effective at stopping suicide than red-flag laws. Gun safety researchers like ER Dr. Emmy Betz, who built a safe storage program in Colorado, have a slightly different view.

EMMY BETZ: I do think that red-flag laws are an important tool in the toolbox, but they're not what we should be reaching for first.

BOLTON: Betz says starting with a voluntary approach engages the at-risk person in their own care.

BETZ: What we really want for long-term optimal health is to help the at-risk person be building their own set of skills to get through things themselves - with help but for them to be the one to do it.

BOLTON: Researchers are only just beginning to study how often gun owners are using this technique as a way to reduce the risk of suicide.

BETZ: We do know from a survey of firearm owners in two states that about a quarter of people said that they'd stored a gun away from home within the past five years. That to me suggests people are using this, whether for suicide risk or extended travel, deployment.

BOLTON: Harvard researcher Cathy Barber says that first, messaging campaigns need to ramp up more to truly change people's behavior.

CATHY BARBER: You need the kind of message saturation that we got with designated driver and friends don't let friends drive drunk, where you're seeing it in TV shows, on movies.

BOLTON: Some gun owners are getting that message. Peter Wakem lives in North Carolina, where he designs custom firearms cases for gun owners. He also has a system for his own guns if his depression takes a turn.

PETER WAKEM: I have in my telephone a list of my top people. And when things start going dark, they're always available for me to reach out.

BOLTON: When things feel worse, Wakem's friends take his firearms for a while. In his workshop, they change the security code on his gun safe. He also keeps a note inside the gun safe to remind himself to ask for help. The note says...

WAKEM: Time to reach out. Things will get better. You're not weak. You're doing the right thing. Make the phone call. Signed future Pete.

BOLTON: He says that note and his personal support network have saved his life multiple times. For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton in Helena, Mont.

ESTRIN: This story was produced in partnership with Nashville Public Radio and KFF Health News. You can hear a second part to this story this afternoon on All Things Considered. And if you or someone you know may be considering suicide or are in crisis, call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline - 988. 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.