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Gun locks meant to act as barrier to suicide

Around 70% of veteran suicides are by firearm, according to Jeff Patterson, suicide prevention coordinator for VA Butler Healthcare, but if a person needs to take an extra step to complete a suicide plan, they often won’t go through with the action.

“Many suicide crises are brief, so increasing the time from impulse to access to firearms, the greater chance that person won’t go through with it,” Patterson said. “Around 60 or 70% if they have selected a means, if that means is removed, they don't go on to attempt suicide.”

Butler VA Healthcare gave out about 5,000 gun locks in the 2022 fiscal year, and the agency plans to give out more at a distribution event Wednesday, Nov. 22, at Butler SUCCEED.

The gun lock distribution takes place from noon to 4 p.m. at 150 N. Main St. in Butler, and Samantha McCandless, community engagement and partnership coordinator for VA Butler Healthcare, said they will give anyone as many gun locks as they want. The gun locks require a key to unlock and are meant to keep guns secured in a safe place.

McCandless said that through her position, she has given gun locks to people who don’t even own any guns, just in case they know someone who may someday need it as a barrier.

“If somebody told me they needed 10 gun locks, I would give them 10, no questions,” McCandless said. “I would recommend everyone have a gun lock, whether you have a gun or not. You never know when someone will have suicidal thoughts and need that barrier in place.”

Josette Skobieranda Dau, associate director of Butler SUCCEED, said McCandless approached her with the idea for a gun lock distribution after meeting at a SUCCEED function. Butler SUCCEED also hosts distributions for naloxone, so having an event to give out gun locks fell into a similar harm-reduction effort, Skobieranda Dau said.

“The collaboration with the VA hospital on the gun lock distribution will undoubtedly increase gun ownership safety,” she said. “The program faces head on the lethality of guns as means of self-harm and/or suicide, particularly if someone is at a low point with life circumstances.”

According to Patterson, medical staff members at Veterans Affairs perform a risk assessment on every veteran receiving counseling services at least once a year. Patterson said “every veteran regardless of diagnoses” gets an annual suicide screen.

“With those veterans who might be at higher risk, or if they are involved in mental health, there's often safety plans being completed,” Patterson said.

Patterson also said 43% of people don't replace their suicide method with any other means, even if an attempt fails. He added that about 90% of those who survive do not go on to die by suicide.

McCandless recommends people take a gun lock during the Thanksgiving eve distribution, just out of caution. She also said people should not be ashamed to talk about their struggles with suicide or mental health issues, because they are more common that many might think.

“Having suicidal thoughts, it's not what I'd call an aspect of mental illness. We all have thoughts, some are darker than others,” McCandless said. “My hope is that community members, when they need gun locks, they have them.”

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