Any means necessary
After his son killed himself in 2003, Stephen Johnson, of Las Vegas, installed a gun safe in his garage. Now, Johnson encourages anyone with guns to lock them up for safety.
His 18-year-old son grabbed a Smith & Wesson handgun from a knapsack in his parents’ closet and shot himself in the shower.
Johnson felt guilty about it for a long time. The guilt eventually stopped. The pain never did.
In his suicide note, Levi Johnson said he would’ve killed himself regardless of the means. The note he left behind took fault with his brief time in the Marines and told his Mom not to blame his Dad for the gun, because if the gun hadn’t been available he would have just used a knife or something else.
“Why? You ask that question, oh, a billion times,” Stephen Johnson said. “I still don’t have the answers of why, but I have been able to cope with that — not getting those questions answered.”
It was the second time Johnson’s son tried to kill himself. During basic training, he tried to overdose on aspirin. In high school, he had a history of cutting himself.
Levi Johnson planned his last attempt. He cleaned his room, made his bed and put his last two paychecks and his ATM code on a bulletin board.
Then he picked up the phone and called the police to forewarn them of his suicide. He hung up, turned the phone off, stepped into the shower, pulled the curtain shut and squeezed the trigger.
Two weeks later, Johnson and his wife joined the Survivors of Suicide group. Three years later, they became facilitators to help others process their grief.
Clark County coroner Michael Murphy spends time helping Las Vegas-area families cope after they lose a loved one to suicide. He can’t provide much solace because he can only tell a family how their loved one committed suicide, but not why — the burning question for most.
“They do not bring a child into this world with the idea that the child’s death will precede them,” Murphy said. “Everything’s out of order for them at that point. And then when they look at what they consider to be a senseless act that someone has done and done to themselves, it leaves them with this emptiness and I don’t know if there’s anything that will fill that void.”
Regardless of the means, suicide is a mental health issue to Murphy. The solution is increasing awareness of the problem and treating it as such, he said. It’s difficult to know what prevention practices work best because statistically, it’s hard to measure what hasn’t happened, Murphy said.
State prevention measures
Prevention specialists in New Hampshire and Nevada are looking at firearm suicides and working with gun stores and ranges to decrease deaths.
Nevada had a high rate of suicide by firearm, 9.83 per 100,000 residents, or 268 suicides, in 2012, the News21 analysis found. It was ninth in the 13 states that make up the West — the region that accounts for some of the highest rates as a whole.
More than three times as many firearm suicides as firearm homicides happened in Nevada in 2012, data shows.
The Nevada Office of Suicide Prevention has coordinators contacting gun stores, ranges and training centers with pamphlets and posters about gun safety. They also train employees to recognize suicidal or distressed customers, said Richard Egan, prevention training and outreach facilitator.
Egan took the Office of Suicide Prevention job after a long Air Force career. He regularly staffs the office’s booth at gun shows to talk to people about firearm safety and suicide.
He teaches employees of gun ranges and stores to recognize suicidal tendencies of customers in a three-hour class called safeTalk.
“Suicide breeds isolation and darkness — open the door and turn on the light,” Egan said. “Talk to them about what they’re going through. Let them express their feelings. And it may not always be about suicide, but you’re not going to know until you ask.”
Nevada is expanding on safety programs that started on the East Coast.
New Hampshire had a firearm suicide rate of 7.36 per 100,000 people with 97 suicides in 2012, according to News21 data. That put it at more than double the average rate of Northeastern states and slightly above the national average rate. Firearm suicides were nearly nine times higher than the 11 firearm homicides in 2012.
Within five days of each other in 2009, three individuals walked into Riley’s Sport Shop in Hooksett, New Hampshire, and bought firearms they used to kill themselves hours later. Elaine Frank, creator of the New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition — of which the sport shop was a member — worked together with the owner of Riley’s to create the Gun Shop Project.
The project — seeking to start suicide prevention conversations among gun owners and sellers — has distributed materials for suicide prevention to more than half of New Hampshire gun stores.
In 2011, the Gun Shop Project added a commandment addressing suicide to the previously established “10 Commandments of Firearm Safety” created by gun manufacturer Remington. The new commandment says “If a loved one is at risk for suicide, keep firearms away from them.”
Suicide is preventable up to a point, Frank said. But there will always be a few individuals who give no warning and will end their lives by any means available. “There are many people who are suicidally ambivalent. They’re not sure that they want to live, but they’re really not sure they want to die,” Frank said.
Counter employees at The Range 702 in Las Vegas are sent to safeTalk training to learn to identify the warning signs of potentially suicidal customers, gunsmith Bill Smallwood said.
Smallwood hasn’t yet been through the training, but after knowing four people who committed suicide — including his best friend — he feels like he can recognize the signs.
Smallwood was in Washington, D.C., when he got a 1 a.m. call about his best friend’s suicide. He was on the first plane home to Las Vegas to be there for Danny Wortman’s wife and family.
“I didn’t see it coming,” he said.
Wortman came home and went upstairs for a long period of time, Smallwood said. When his wife went to the bedroom to check on him, she found him with a revolver to his head. She screamed “What are you doing?” and tried to pull the gun away.
He pulled the trigger. Click. He put the gun to his head a second time and pulled the trigger. It went off.
“Going through so many (suicides) and going through what I did, I pretty much know what to look for,” Smallwood said.
For gun shop employees who haven’t experienced suicides, it’s important to know how to recognize warning signs, he said. “It’s something everybody in the building watches out for,” he said.
Employees know it’s a red flag when a customer asks to rent a gun but doesn’t care what kind. When they only ask for one or two bullets, employees know to be cautious, Smallwood said.
That’s when a counter employee will call over Smallwood or another manager for a second opinion. If a manager feels uncomfortable giving the person a gun, service will be denied. Smallwood keeps a stack of brochures and phone numbers in his office he can give to people who seem to need help.
After the person leaves, employees of Range 702 will call every other gun range in town and warn them not to rent a gun to the at-risk individual, Smallwood said.
“People move here for the good life and then you get sucked into Sin City,” Smallwood said. “It is Las Vegas. You start at the penny machine, move up to the nickel machine, then you’re off to the quarter machine and then you’re on to the dollar machine, then you’re spending the rent and it just goes up like that.”
Discount Firearms and Ammo, a gun shop and range in Las Vegas, experienced a suicide about five years ago, operations manager Ron Reyes said.
A suicide will happen at any range if it has been open long enough, Reyes said. Ranges see more red flags and have more ability to stop suicidal customers if they are renting guns, as opposed to bringing their own. But gun ranges hire gun safety officers to provide oversight on the range, spot customers acting irregularly and prevent any incidents, he said.
“It’s a sad instance when it happens to anybody and when it’s as close as within our doors,” Reyes said. “The range officers, where that’s their daily work area, every time they pass by that lane they know something that other people don’t.”
Politicians told Linda Flatt, who helped create the Nevada Office of Suicide Prevention and was a former suicide prevention trainer, not to bring up guns or gun safety from the beginning of her crusade for suicide prevention resources in Nevada.
Before the office was created in 2003, Sen. Ann O’Connell, R-Las Vegas, who sponsored legislation Flatt worked on, told her any mention of gun safety or gun control paired with suicide prevention talk would kill any progress for help to curb suicides.
Now, Flatt is amazed the office and its director, Richard Egan, are addressing it.
After her 25-year-old son, Paul Tillander, committed suicide in 1993, Flatt was adamant in thinking suicides were unpreventable. More than a decade later, she’s convinced the creation of the Office of Suicide Prevention and its work have helped decrease the high rate of suicide in the state.
Nevada had the highest rate of suicides and firearm suicides among all states in 1999, and was still in the top five for both in 2003 before the office was created, according to data gathered from the CDC. Flatt attributed high suicide rates to high gun ownership in the state and large rural areas with feelings of isolation and a go-it-alone mentality among residents.
By 2012, Nevada ranked 15th for firearm suicides, the News21 analysis shows. Flatt believes her work and that of her colleagues in her former office is the main cause of the drop over the years.
“I decided I was not going to be destroyed by this,” Flatt said of her son’s suicide. “There was only going to be one death, and that was his.”
Carmen Forman is an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation News21 Fellow.