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To help prevent suicides, groups encourage temporary gun storage outside the home

In the basement of his home in Helena, Mike Hossfeld has built a secure room for his gun collection. He has modern firearms and antiques, some dating back to the 1800s. It’s all behind this heavy, black steel door.

But not every gun in the safe is his.

“There are a few weapons in here that belong to other folks,” Hossfeld said.

Hossfeld is storing these guns for friends or relatives who are going through a mental health crisis or simply a rough patch in life. Hossfeld emphasized he’s only storing these guns temporarily.

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.

Montana saw one of the largest increases in suicide rates in recent years, and suicides involving a gun were the main driver of that increase.

Reducing suicide by firearm, which account for more than half of gun fatalities nationwide, is one patch of common ground in the country's polarized debate over guns.

Making it easier to store guns outside of the home is one strategy that's gaining traction.

“The whole premise is to help people to alleviate the immediate situation. But in the long run, they’re able to regain their weapon,” Hossfeld said.

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.

Montana has the second highest suicide rate nationwide and nearly two-thirds of suicides here involve a firearm. Suicide rates increased 42% from 2011 to 2022, one of the largest increases nationwide.

Montana has the second highest suicide rate nationwide and nearly two-thirds of suicides here involve a firearm. Suicide rates increased 42% from 2011 to 2022, one of the largest increases nationwide.

A new state law removes legal liabilities for those who store guns for others. Lawmakers hope that will encourage more folks to do it.

That’s also why Jess Hegstrom went to a gun show in Helena. She works on suicide prevention for the Lewis & Clark County. She set up an information table at the gun show and tried to blend into a sea of camo and folks wearing pro-gun t-shirts.

“I have, like, little guns on my earrings. I’m cool, I’m friendly. I’m not here to waggle my finger at you,” Hegstrom said. 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.

But at the gun show, she just tried to educate gun owners about the idea of voluntary safe storage as something that anybody can do for a friend.

“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, you can hold onto their firearm if you’re worried about them,” Hegstrom said.

Gun-rights advocates in Montana were hesitant at first to work with Hegstrom on these efforts. Jason Swant runs a sports shooting group in Helena.

“Simply because historically there has been conflict between groups like ours and other groups who are concerned about the safety-social issues with firearms,” Swant said.

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.

“We’ve had a few people let us know that somebody asked and held my firearm and that made a difference. That’s why I’m here today,” Swant said.

Across town at Capital Sports, firearm sales have been booming in recent years. But Owner Ed Beal said so have sales of items that keep guns locked up and safe.

“We’ll start with trigger locks, very basic. Little vaults so you can get to them quick,” Beal said.

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.

“Like our number one seller is right here,” Beal said.

It’s a tall, narrow metal safe that can hold long guns like rifles and also smaller pistols.

Beal’s staff always encourage customers to keep their guns locked up and have worked with Hegstrom and Lewis and Clark County to promote safe storage to prevent suicide.

Now Hegstrom wants Beal’s shop to participate in her safe storage map. But he’s undecided.

“I’m not really sure that firearms dealers doing hold agreements is really the best idea or not,” Beal said.

Beal said federal law isn’t clear on requirements for gun shops doing temporary holds. He said he would have to run background checks before giving a gun back. He worries that will push people who need help away.

A few states such as Maryland and Colorado have published safe storage maps online like the one public health officials in Lewis and Clark county are trying to start.

On the safe storage map for Colorado you can find Hammer Down Firearms, a gun shop outside Denver.

Co-owner Chris Jandrow said only two people have ever used the service.

“There’s not a dealer that we don’t know that doesn’t want to stop this madness, with people with depression, especially over the past few years. People are just more depressed than they’ve ever been. I mean we see it,” Jandrow said.

Jandrow said 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.

Mental health care doesn’t necessarily disqualify someone from getting the gun back, but it is confusing. Jandrow said these are people in crisis. “It does trip people up.”

In 2021, the Biden administration announced its support of the creation of more safe storage maps. But it also reminded gun dealers that they still had to do background checks.

Jandrow and other firearms dealers said it may just be easier for friends and family to store guns for each other. Public health officials in Montana and across the country are encouraging that practice.

Gun safety researchers like ER Doctor Emmy Betz, who built a safe storage program in Colorado, said this voluntary approach engages the at-risk person in their own care.

“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,” Betz said.

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

Harvard Researcher Cathy Barber said that first, messaging campaigns need to ramp to truly change people’s behavior.

“You need the kind of message saturation that we’ve got with designated driver and ‘friends don’t let friends drive drunk.’ Where you’re seeing it in TV shows, on movies, you’re seeing it on PSA’s,” Barber said.

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.

“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,” Wakem said.

When things feel worse, Wakem’s friends take his firearms for awhile. 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:

“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,” Wakem said.

He said that note, and his personal support network, have saved his life multiple times.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, you can call 988 for help.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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