On March 31, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed the Suicide Awareness and Prevention Education for Safer Homes Act into law after an unprecedented collaborative effort between suicide prevention and gun rights activists to craft the legislation and garner support from lawmakers.
Responsible for this seemingly impossible feat of detente is Jennifer Stuber, a professor of Social Work at the University of Washington (UW), co-founder of Forefront — a suicide prevention group — and survivor, having lost her husband to suicide in 2011.
“This is really a public health issue,” Stuber said in an interview with The Beachcomber. “I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t want to participate in this, unless they think that suicide is not preventable, which is not true.”
And for one former islander, not participating was never an option.
“I don’t ever want any other parent to go through what I’ve been through,” said Kathleen Gilligan, whose 14-year-old son’s death by suicide three and-a-half years ago rocked not only her family, but the entire Vashon community to its core.
While his classmates are now worrying about prom dates, choosing colleges and getting ready for life after high school, Gilligan’s son, a beloved member Vashon High School’s class of 2016, will remain forever a freshman, his tousled brown hair, easy smile and passion for the world around him now just a memory for all who knew and loved him.
On Oct. 4, 2012, Palmerston (Palmer) R.K. Burk, ended his life when he shot himself in front of the Vashon home he shared with his mother and sister. Barely a month into high school with a lifetime of adventures ahead, he was gone in a moment.
A moment that might have been prevented had he not had access to an unsecured gun in his home.
“That is the horror I have to live with,” Gilligan said. “But I’m ready to tell his story. I feel well enough to do that now. This is lifesaving, critical information every parent should have.”
The law looks to prevent suicides through awareness education and training for pharmacists and those who sell firearms or teach others to use them, such as firing range operators or training experts — emphasizing safe storage in the home as well as potential suicidal signs to watch for and what to do when concerned. According to the Washington State Department of Health, firearm deaths account for 51 percent and poisoning (which includes prescription drug overdoses) deaths account for 19 percent of successful suicides in the state. The act will make training mandatory for pharmacist accreditation and optional for gun dealers and instructors.
“Pharmacists are seen through the health care provider lens on this issue, where it makes sense to impose requirements,” Stuber said. “They should really have been included in some earlier rounds of legislation. For the gun dealers, mandating training would be an overstep. We believe this will be a successful program on a voluntary basis.”
Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, agreed.
“Historically in the gun rights community, it’s well known that the majority of gun deaths are suicides, not homicides,” he said. “So we’re always looking for ways to deal with this.”
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control support Gottlieb’s statement: In 2013, the rate of firearm homicides in the U.S. was 3.5 per 100,000 people, whereas the rate of firearm suicides the same year was nearly double at 6.7 per 100,000.
Stuber, who co-founded Forefront after her husband died by firearm suicide in 2011, reached out to the gun community initially by talking to the owners of the two stores where her husband had purchased his guns. She asked them, and eventually other dealers, if they ever worried about selling guns to people who could be suicidal. Nearly every person she spoke to said that they did. That is when she decided to approach the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Second Amendment Foundation.
“I was very interested in meeting with Jen after she approached me,” Gottlieb said of Stuber’s unexpected outreach. “I was convinced we could accomplish something that would get broad-based support. … She really understood that to make this work, the firearms community had to be involved and not subjected to the demonization that often comes along with these issues. It was all about being inclusive.”
Inclusive could well be an understatement, as it was not only Gilligan and other survivors who testified before a state Senate committee in support of the legislation, but also Brian Judy, the NRA’s western states lobbyist who last made headlines in Washington with his remarks comparing 2014’s Initiative 594 (requiring background checks for those purchasing firearms online or at shows) to Nazi Germany.
“This was all about bringing everyone to the table,” Gilligan said. “This was not about being anti-gun, this was about reducing suicide deaths by firearms and Jen was amazing in getting everyone involved that needed to be to make it work.”
And while hindsight has shown Gilligan some red flags she never saw at the time, she is determined that others learn from her experience.
“The horror of suicide will not stop until we can talk about it as easily as when kids get injured playing sports,” she said. “Palmer was trained to the hilt (in gun safety), but the possibility of suicide just wasn’t on my radar at all. This could really make a critical difference — If that seed had been planted with me, I would have been more vigilant.”
Gilligan said she is most proud of the the piece of the legislation that will implement suicide awareness into the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s hunter training courses.
“More than 12,000 people a year take those courses,” she said. “That will reach a lot of people. We’re changing attitudes with this.”
Brad Shride, one of Burk’s former mentors, vice president of the Sportsmen’s Club and the island’s only licensed gun dealer, said that he and the Sportsmen’s Club will take part in whatever training is offered and utilize any materials that will eventually be created for suicide awareness at the point of purchase or training. Having turned away a handful of potential customers over the years due to “gut feelings,” Shride said he believed training would be helpful.
“You never want anyone to die by suicide or hurt themselves,” he noted. “If we can prevent any of them in any way, it’s great.”
Shride also said that the new legislation wouldn’t really change much in the way he does business or teaches safety, as he has always taken safety and training very seriously, this will simply be “another facet” for him by specifically addressing suicide.
“Palmer was beloved at the club,” he explained. “It broke everyone’s hearts when he died. … Personally, I’ll be happy to make folks more aware of suicide, if that will help in any way.”
Getting this law, as well as Stuber’s previous efforts focused on proper training for health care professionals, through the legislature required help on the inside. In State Representative Tina Orwall (D-Des Moines), Stuber seems to have found her political champion, together getting six suicide prevention laws passed in the past five years.
With 11 co-sponsors and compelling testimony from Gilligan and many others, House Bill 2793 (as the legislation was known through the process) garnered nearly unanimous support throughout the legislature. In the House vote for its final concurrence, only two Representatives voted “no”: Rep. Elizabeth Scott (R-Monroe) and Rep. David Taylor (R-Moxee), neither of whom was available for comment on the matter.
With a suicide rate in Washington that is 14 percent higher than the national average and more than half occurring by the use of firearms, Orwall said that it really struck her that there was truly common ground for all involved in the effort.
“This was my first time working with the NRA on any legislation,” she said. “Everyone involved had a story of how suicide has affected their lives. All were impacted by it in some way. And there was an understanding that there are things that can be done, that suicide can be prevented.”
She also believes that Gilligan’s involvement had a significant impact.
“As a parent, it was heartbreaking to hear Kathleen’s story,” she explained. “What an incredible way to honor her son. Her story has made a difference. You can write a bill with good policy, but you can pass a bill with impact. In her first meetings, there was not a dry eye.”
And while local media coverage of this effort has been noticeably sparse, Gottlieb said that he has been receiving calls from gun rights groups in other states about how to work on similar legislation.
With the law passed, Stuber is now focused on a documentary she and Forefront made featuring Gilligan and Burk’s story, which has been submitted to the Seattle International Film Festival for consideration.
Gilligan, for her part, is now working with Forefront as a volunteer peer-to-peer counselor and for Behavioral Tech, a company that trains mental health professionals in different types of therapies, one of which involves treatments for suicidal patients.
“The pain was horrendous. I didn’t work for a year after Palmer died,” she said. “But I’ve had other parents reach out to me who have told me I’ve helped them. Now I’m driven to share his story — he was the perfect example of someone who was highly trained and knew how to be safe, but I left one (gun) un-stored and unlocked … and that is what he chose. It’s a powerful story of a false sense of security.”
If you are feeling like you need help or that someone you know needs help, call the national suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, or text to 741-741.