Map shows where owners can store guns during a mental crisis

Rutgers effort aims to prevent suicides by getting guns temporarily out of owners’ homes
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Just like using designated drivers or giving your keys to a friend when intoxicated, creating distance between a suicidal person and their means of suicide is a proven method to lessening the likelihood of death.

Rutgers University is using this approach to help firearm owners in New Jersey avoid suicide or gun deaths among friends and family.

Rutgers University Gun Violence Research Center recently launched an interactive map to locate firearm dealers available for short-term firearm storage in New Jersey. The goal: Give gun owners a way to control weapons without the need for third-party intervention.

Advocates for years have pressed for red flag laws, which give family or household members the right to petition the court to remove a person’s firearms if they pose a threat to themselves or others. New Jersey adopted its own red flag law in September 2019 that allows family members and those living in the same household to petition a court for removal. The statute also allows law enforcement to ask a court to have a firearm removed from a household.

Removing a firearm from the household of a person experiencing suicidal thoughts is a proven strategy to lessen the likelihood of successfully carrying out a suicide, according to Michael Anestis, a clinical psychologist and executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center.

Anestis explains that those who are considering suicide tend to attach the desire to commit suicide to the object they plan on using, so when the object is removed, they tend not to switch to another method.

Suicide, and efforts to curb it, became more of a public issue during the COVID-19 pandemic: Loneliness, isolation and hopelessness can all lead to suicidal thoughts.

When someone is feeling depressed more often than usual, thinking of harming themselves or saying their existence is a burden in any way, according to Anestis, removing firearms from their possession should be seriously considered. Taking away a weapon before such thoughts escalate to an unbearable level is an effective way to minimize the risk that they’ll be acted on, he said.

“The most effective suicide prevention strategy in the world, historically, is what’s called ‘means safety’: taking specific method of suicide that is highly lethal and that is frequently used in that area and making it either less deadly or less available,” said Anestis.

Fifth of its kind in US

The New Jersey Firearm Storage Map is the fifth of its kind. The first, in Colorado, was created by a group of emergency physicians, with more states developing their own versions. New Jersey’s map is about two weeks old. It was created by researchers at the Rutgers New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center with support from the New Jersey Department of Human Services Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services. Rutgers GVRC works to create a safer New Jersey through its research on gun violence and prevention.

People can use the interactive map to locate a firearm dealer near them and request storage without needing to disclose their mental health status. Each dealer identified on the map has agreed to be a part of the service and their contact information is listed.

The individual asking to store a gun must be the registered owner; each location has the right to decline a request — say, for lack of storage. Thus, the service may not be available at all locations on the map at all times. Storage costs are determined on a case-by-case basis. Firearm dealers are still being added, Anestis said.

Although firearms are used in less than 5% of suicides in the United States, they are involved in more than half the deaths because they are extremely lethal in comparison to other suicide methods.

There are people who avoid mental health care, and tend to hide their thoughts of suicide, according to Anestis. This map, he said, could provide them with a discreet way to take control of their mental health without disclosing it and without relinquishing total ownership of their firearm.

“We need to make it easier for folks who we are not typically speaking with in these types of conversations, to have the message resonate and not feel like a liberal gun grab … and normalize the idea of ‘when I am having a hard time, I store my firearms outside of the home,’” Anestis said.

If you are feeling depressed or suicidal, reach out to the New Jersey Suicide Prevention Hopeline. Help is available 24/7 at 1-855-654-6735 or text NJ to 741741.

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