A gun sits in a gun safe. In Missouri, 66% of those who died by suicide used a firearm as a lethal means of death.
In Missouri, 66% of those who died by suicide used a firearm. (File photo / Canva)

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call, text or chat with the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. 

​​Even in Missouri — where politicians risk their careers talking about rules around guns — people will listen to your thoughts about firearm safety.

In a place where two-thirds of the rising number of suicides come with a gun, people trying to reduce that statisic in Missouri expected resistance when it came to suggestions about gun safety. 

But amid a mounting mental health crisis, what the organizations found surprised them: Communities across the state were open to talking about how to store their guns and ammunition differently if it meant keeping their family or friends safe. That meant wading into conversations about firearms in the context of suicide prevention through conversations about mental health and community well-being. 

“Just launching the conversation with firearm suicides was probably not a good idea,” said Dr. Meenakshi Bhilwar, a project analyst at the Randolph County Caring Community Partnership. “We should sort of lay the ground, talk about mental health, talk about suicides in general and when the audience gets comfortable talking about those, then we bring in the topic of firearms.”

Bhilwar works with a handful of other clinicians across the state through the Missouri Foundation for Health on preventing suicides by storing guns in ways that create as many barriers as possible for someone who is in crisis. 

“Over this period of three years, we have seen an increase in how the community is responding to our project and how the community members are responding to firearm suicides,” Bhilwar said. 

Public health groups in Missouri partnered to pitch the power of gun locks, safes and having tough conversations about gun safety through schools and community health initiatives. 

They also know that a potentially life-threatening crisis can come and go within minutes. And a few minutes of delay in acting on a suicidal thought — spurred from struggling to bypass a gun safety lock or having bullets and firearms stored in separate locations — could mean the difference between pulling the trigger or letting a self-destructive thought pass. 

A 2008 study of suicide attempts that didn’t end in death found in 24% of cases only five minutes passed between the decision to try suicide and the actual attempt. In 70% of those cases, it was less than an hour. The study also found that 90% of those who survive suicide attempts do not go on to die by suicide later. 

“It’s about creating a safer environment for someone who’s struggling with some suicidal ideation,” said Katie Ellison, the director of the Gun Suicide Prevention Planning Project at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “You’re putting some time and space between them and lethal methods.” 

Missouri suicide prevention resources

988 hotline: call or text 

Crisis Text Line: Text TALK to 741741 

Missouri Suicide Prevention Network

She said it’s a myth that suicidal thoughts amount to a constant drumbeat. Rather, more commonly, think of a wave that builds over time and then crashes over the course of minutes to a few hours. 

Making it through the crash is crucial, she said, and easier without a nearby gun.

Voluntary safety measures and suicide prevention

Missouri’s suicide rate rose 27% from 2011 to 2021. In 2021, Missouri had the 19th highest suicide rate in the nation. Nearly 1,200 died by suicide in the state. 

Of those deaths, 66% involved firearms. Firearms pose the deadliest threat in the nation and in Missouri. Nine times out of 10, attempting suicide with a firearm ends in death.  

Temporarily removing a firearm from the home during what could turn into a lethal situation is the best option, Ellison said. But people don’t always want to give their firearm to a friend or family member, so the suicide prevention field has turned to voluntary measures to help keep those in crisis safe. 

“It’s not going to ever be suicide-proof,” Ellison said. “But it can certainly create enough time in that suicide crisis for someone to interrupt that thought process or recognize you’re in distress.” 

Behavioral Health Response, headquartered in St. Louis, is coordinating a distribution of gun locks for officers to offer if they are called to an emergency situation. 

Bart Andrews, the chief clinical officer at BHR, said it can be hard to convince people that they need to lock up their guns.

“If the person hasn’t committed a crime, and they are someone that is not a voluntary patient but they don’t meet criteria for civil involuntary detention,” he said, “there’s not much law enforcement can do.” 

Missouri doesn’t have red flag laws that let law enforcement temporarily remove a gun from a person deemed unsafe to themselves or others. Andrews said that makes some officers worried about the legal liability of giving away gun locks. But the resistance isn’t absolute.

“But at some point,” Andrews said, “law enforcement officers are willing to put locks on.” 

A February 2023 poll from St. Louis University and YouGov found that 60% of likely Missouri voters favored red flag laws, while 25% opposed them. 

If law enforcement is called to a situation where a person is in the midst of a crisis, they can bring the gun locks with them and offer them to that person. Ideally, a friend or family member could hold onto the key for a few days until the situation calms, but BHR and law enforcement acknowledge that such an option isn’t always available.

Eventually, the mental health groups plan to have police take those gun lock keys with them and mail them to BHR. That group would give the key to the gun owner when a crisis passes. 

Those details are still being ironed out, Andrews said. Plus, he said there are ways legislation could intervene and help promote safety without infringing on Second Amendment rights.

Missouri has no safe-storage statutes. But things like protecting law enforcement officers for providing gun locks, or good Samaritan laws that would offer legal protection to someone who voluntarily stores a firearm for the safety of another person, could be ways to promote safer storage. 

A 2020 study from the University of Missouri-Kansas City found that the 2007 repeal of Missouri’s permit-to-carry law was followed by a 21.8% increase in firearm suicide rates for Missourians aged 19 to 24. 

The SLU poll found that 69% of respondents favored requiring someone to be 21 to purchase a gun in Missouri, including 88% of Democrats and 59% of Republicans. 

The role of 988 in managing crises

Last July, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline rolled out a new three-digit line: 988. From the launch of the hotline in July 2022 to July of this year, it has fielded nearly 51,500 calls from Missourians experiencing a crisis, according to state Department of Mental Health data. A state report estimated that Missouri is expected to receive more than 500,000 contacts by the fifth year of the hotline. 

Six behavioral health centers field the 988 calls, including BHR. The 988 service also has a text line for deaf or hard of hearing callers, operated by Columbia-based DeafLEAD. (Those in crisis can also text TALK to 741741.) 

The hotline was launched using federal funds, but now the state is responsible for footing some of the bill. 

In its 2024 budget request, the Department of Mental Health requested nearly $27 million in state and federal funds to operate 988. Gov. Mike Parson recommended allocating no state or federal funding to the hotline. In the final budget, the General Assembly allocated nearly $10 million more than the department requested, a spokesperson for DMH said. 

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MEG CUNNINGHAM is The Beacon’s Missouri Statehouse reporter. Previously, Meg worked as a national politics reporter for ABC News in Washington, D.C., where she covered campaigns and elections. Meg is...