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Op-Ed: COVID-19, Colorado Firearm Suicides and Lessons for First-Time Gun Owners

Firearm sales have surged in Colorado over the past few months.
Firearm sales have surged in Colorado over the past few months.

COVID-19 has upended daily routines and brought anxiety, fear and uncertainty. In Colorado and across the nation, it also brought a surge in firearm purchases — often, anecdotally, by first-time gun owners. We should know: Some of our coalition members are proud owners of Denver-area gun shops and understand that some first-time gun owners may be less experienced with firearm ownership best practices.

To new gun owners, we ask: "What now?" Owning a firearm brings responsibilities, including obtaining training in safe handling and ensuring that firearms are stored so they are not accessible by unauthorized people.

The Colorado Firearm Safety Coalition is a non-partisan partnership between the firearm and medical communities that exclusively focuses on prevention of firearm suicide. Our state is a national leader in many ways, but unfortunately that includes having one of the highest suicide rates. More than half of all Colorado suicides involve a firearm, and 78 percent of all gun-related deaths in the state are suicides.

Many individuals own guns out of a desire to protect themselves and their families. However, having a gun in the home increases the risk of death by suicide for those living in the home. Let us be clear: Guns do not make someone suicidal, but they do make it more likely that a suicide attempt will result in death, simply because firearms are more lethal than other methods of suicide. As COVID-19 threatens to disrupt our livelihoods and social connections, there is good reason to believe that some Americans, including those with access to guns, will experience suicidal thoughts and take their lives in the coming weeks and months.

Our coalition is committed to helping Colorado gun owners — new and old — safeguard themselves, their loved ones and their communities from firearm suicide. To do this, we recommend that all gun owners know the warning signs of suicide and store their weapons in a responsible manner. Safe storage options range from cable locks to lock boxes to safes. While no method is foolproof, all of these reduce the likelihood that a weapon will be used in a suicide attempt.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation provides extensive guidance on suicide prevention programs and has developed a list of responsible storage options to suit personal preferences and lifestyle. In some scenarios, temporarily storing weapons outside the home may be the best way to reduce suicide risk. Our coalition has published an online map that lists Colorado locations where you can inquire about options for temporary, voluntary gun storage. With children home from school, there are more reasons than ever to responsibly store weapons inside or outside of the home.

Finally, some new gun owners may be unfamiliar with the basics of how to handle and operate their firearms. Many gun shops across the state provide instruction for new gun owners, including all of our member shops. In addition, you can find a few resources for safe firearm handling here.

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We are all concerned about safety, and there is immense need for collaboration in the name of suicide prevention. Our coalition, and others like it, such as the El Paso County Firearm Safety Workgroup, hope to bridge the gap between the medical and firearm communities. For all of us, gun owners and not, the issue of firearm suicide is real.

COVID-19 has upped the ante, and the time for Coloradans to look out for each other is now. Gun ownership comes with significant responsibilities, and we encourage new and experienced gun owners alike to think of ways today to prevent firearm suicide in their communities.

The authors are all members of the Colorado Firearm Safety Coalition. Ty Kelly is a dual-degree medical and public health student at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Dr. Emmy Betz is an associate professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Jacquelyn Clark is the co-owner of Bristlecone Shooting, Training & Retail Center in Lakewood. Dr. Michael Victoroff is a certified firearms instructor and a clinical professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Westword occasionally publishes op-eds on matters of interest to the Denver community. Have one you'd like to submit? Send it to editorial@westword.com, where you can also comment on this piece.

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