The small town of Craig, Colorado, sits on a winding river in a wide valley in the rural northwest corner of the state. Wild horses roam the wide open landscape, as do herds of elk. The area is a sportsman’s paradise.
“Craig, Colorado, is one of the elk hunting capitals of the country and the world. Most people have a lot of hunting rifles,” explains Damon Hatfield, who lives in Craig and works at the local coal mine. “I think almost every home in Craig would have a gun in it of some sort.”
Damon has many guns himself: sporting rifles, antiques — and a handgun for self-defense that he keeps by his bed. But last summer, Damon gave his firearms away.
With his tiny dog Hercules sitting on his lap, he describes the night he made that choice.
“It was about 10 o’clock and I went to bed and she had started drinking,” Damon said, describing his wife, who had been struggling with a terminal illness as well as depression. On top of that, they were worried about money; this was a rough patch.
When Damon woke up in the middle of the night, his wife wasn’t in bed or anywhere else in the house. Damon found her on the porch, sitting in a chair, outside in the dark. At first, he thought she was sleeping.
“I tried to wake her because I thought she was asleep, and then I looked and I could tell that she had shot herself because I saw the gun on her chest,” Damon said, speaking slowly, breathing deeply. “It’s the worst day of my life right there.”
At some point, the police came and then the victim’s advocates arrived. They asked Damon if he had any guns in the home, explaining in that moment of trauma he needed to be protected from himself; Damon agreed.
“I basically told them where they were, and they retrieved them. They got the handguns first. And then a family member came by and got the rest of the rifles and stuff,” Damon said. “I’ll be honest with you, my frame of mind right there was pretty bad. I could have been in danger. … Getting the guns out of the house was a good idea.”
A two-lane highway connects the Colorado towns of Craig and Steamboat Springs, a part of the state famous for elk hunting. Communities like these have high rates of suicide and gun ownership.
Leigh Paterson / KUNC
Damon’s wife is one of the tens of thousands of Americans who die by firearm suicide every year — more than 24,000 in 2018, according to the latest figues from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate of firearm suicide in the U.S. has been steadily increasing for years, particularly in Mountain West states. In 2018, Colorado had the seventh highest suicide rate in the country. Moffat County, where Damon lives, has one of the highest rates in the state.
More than half of all suicide deaths in the U.S. are the result of a firearm. More than 60% of gun deaths are suicides. That’s why public health experts and survivor advocates say easy access to guns is at the heart of the issue. And to tackle the problem, advocates need to engage with gun owners.
Damon’s simple act of voluntarily giving his guns to a family member is an example of what some public health experts hope is a growing movement in preventing firearm suicide: partnering with gun owners themselves to remove guns in times of crisis.
Meghan Francone, executive director of Open Heart Advocates and the Moffat County coordinator for Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide works from a small white house outside of Craig that doubles a domestic violence shelter. The majority of suicide deaths in the area happen by firearm.
Leigh Paterson / KUNC
Voluntary Is Key
Meghan Francone is one of the people working to prevent these deaths. In her role as the executive director of a local group called Open Heart Advocates, she was one of the victim advocates who went to Damon’s house the night his wife died.
“In our county, individuals are choosing to end their lives with firearm. This is just a fact,” Francone said, adding that her statement is not meant to be political. “I have firearm in my home. I conceal carry. We’re members of the NRA. I’m not anti-firearm, I’m pro gun safety.”
Like so many others in this community, Francone has a personal connection to the issue. Her teenage brother-in-law died by suicide years ago using a gun that was not locked up.
“If we had increased time and distance between my loved one and the most lethal means, we would probably have a loved one today,” she said.
Research shows that the intense time of crisis leading up to suicide is often brief, with some people taking only five or 10 minutes to think it through. Add to that the fact that firearms are more lethal than other methods of self-harm, separating people from guns during that high-risk period is an important part of Francone’s job. When she advises people to give up their guns for a time, they usually agree.
“Absolutely. Because it’s a personal and voluntary choice,” Francone explained.
In rural, conservative areas like Moffat County, the voluntary part is often key. Opposition to any sort of gun control is significant, particularly when it comes to Colorado’s controversial Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) law, which allows a judge to temporarily remove guns from someone in crisis. In other words, it gets guns out of the house by way of a state law.
Colorado Democrats introduced extreme risk protection order legislation at the statehouse on Feb. 15, 2019. The bill was presented as a tool to reduce gun violence, particularly firearm suicide.
Leigh Paterson / KUNC
A small but growing body of research suggests that ERPO laws, also known as red flag laws, can reduce firearm suicides. But in some western states — and particularly in areas of Colorado with high suicide rates — law enforcement agencies have refused to enforce it. Moffat County and the city of Craig have both passed resolutions supporting second amendment rights, in response to the ERPO legislation. . The local sheriff has questioned the law’s constitutionality.
“If you come to Moffat County with the top-down approach when you’re talking about the Second Amendment, you will hit a wall and you will have no further listening,” Francone said. “You will have no further understanding. Conversations will end or turn volatile.”
This voluntary approach is meant to meet people where they are by leaving decision-making up to the gun owner. When someone is in crisis, advocates can contact a family member willing to store guns, as in Damon’s case. Or the individual can lock up their guns in a safe, for example, and give away the key. It can also mean removing the person: Francone recalled a man who couldn’t remember where all of his guns were, so he left his home.
Research shows that various types of safe storage laws are associated with lower suicide rates, particularly among young people. Less is known about voluntary gun storage; many experts say this is already common practice among some gun owners. Cathy Barber, a Harvard researcher, found that nearly 20% of firearms instructors in Utah she surveyed had held onto a gun for someone else at least once over a two-year period.
“Without gun owners’ involvement, we’re not going to be able to tackle this issue,” Barber explained.
Barber’s work on firearm suicide prevention is extensive: she’s the founder of the Means Matter Campaign, a Harvard-based project that partners with gun groups on reducing access to lethal means. She’s also one of the developers of the Gun Shop Project, which works with retailers on firearm suicide education.
Gun owners voluntarily removing guns from a volatile situation isn’t new, Barber says. She remembers first hearing about this practice years ago at a firearm safety meeting in the back room of a New Hampshire gun shop.
“During the breaks I’d hear some of the gun guys on the committee talking to one another saying things like, ‘Oh, over the weekend, we stopped by so-and-so’s house because his son was having a really hard time so we stopped by to pick up his guns,’” Barber said. “And I was like, ‘Wait, that’s a public health intervention. Why don’t we just name it and promote it?’ ”
The names vary, but momentum behind the idea is building. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs built a downloadable safe storage toolkit. A range safety officer in Pennsylvania launched holdmyguns.org, which connects gun owners with storage options. Public health experts in Colorado, Maryland and Washington state have mapped out places where people can drop off their guns.
Damon Hatfield is an example of someone who agreed to get his guns out of the house. In his case, voluntary storage worked. But his story also illustrates one of the problems with this kind of intervention: It’s hard to know who should not have access to a gun and when.
Prior to her suicide, Damon Hatfield had gotten his wife’s gun out of the house at her request but then returned it because of safety concerns. His story illustrates some of the challenges to voluntary storage.
Leigh Paterson / KUNC
“Yeah. Wow. That’s true,” Damon said. “I didn’t even think about taking the guns out of the house. … I trusted her because when she was in a bad spot a few years ago, she asked me to take the gun out of the house.”
At the time, Damon was on alert; his wife had attempted suicide before and had been in and out of mental health crises. But he eventually gave the gun back. Craig has a meth problem, and they were worried about break-ins.
“Maybe I should have kept the gun out of the house,” Damon said, “but then maybe she would have taken pills.”
Research shows that simply having a firearm in your home increases your risk of dying by suicide. That plus the complex nature of mental health crises suggests voluntary storage alone won’t immediately solve the problem of firearm suicide in rural areas.
Dr. Emmy Betz, an emergency physician at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and the researcher who created Colorado’s Gun Storage Map — an online tool showing law enforcement agencies and gun shops that offer storage — acknowledges this. Still, because getting rid of all guns is not realistic, Betz strongly advocates for voluntary storage, calling it a “critical first step.” She frames it in terms of harm reduction, not unlike teen sex.
On June 27, 2017, Dr. Emmy Betz organized a Ladies Night event at the Centennial Gun Club in Centennial, Colorado, during which she gave a talk about safe gun storage.
Katie Kerwin McCrimmon / UCHealth
“It would be great to totally prevent unintended pregnancies among teenagers,” Betz said. “We should just make sure no one ever has sex. But knowing that that’s not realistic, what are the next steps that we can take to try to educate teens that — if they are choosing to do that — how can they protect themselves from disease or unintended pregnancies?”
Many public health experts who work on firearm suicide prevention hope that over time, voluntary storage will work because it will become a widespread part of gun culture. Betz hopes that eventually voluntary storage has its own catchphrase, like “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk.”
“I don’t know what the catchphrase is because I’m not in advertising,” Betz said with a laugh. “But how do we get to the point where it just becomes a norm, if your family member or friend is at risk of suicide, one of the things you do is get the guns out of the house?”
Damon Hatfield says he has put in a significant amount of work since last summer to get through his wife’s death. He reads books about grief, talks about it with friends and family and cries almost every day.
Four months after his wife’s suicide, Damon asked for his guns back.
“I pondered over it,” he said. “And then finally, I’m like ‘Yeah. I’m comfortable now working on my grief and going to counseling. I think I’m comfortable. I’m not gonna hurt myself.’ ”
Watch for people struggling in your community, Damon says. If you’re struggling, get help and talk about it. And if necessary, remove guns from the situation.
Guns & America’s Lisa Dunn contributed to this story.
Resources if you or someone you know is considering suicide:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)
Options For Deaf + Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889
En Español: 1-888-628-9454
Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline: 208-398-4357
Colorado Crisis Services: 1-844-493-8255 (TALK)
Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)
Veterans Crisis Line & Military Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, Press 1
Crisis Text Line: 741-741
In emergency situations, call 911.
The Guns & America series In Their Own Hands explores the complexity of gun suicides in the Mountain West, where gun ownership is often a way of life, and highlights communities addressing this persistent problem.