Joe Liuni felt a little strange in a room full of mental health professionals in New York state.
As a gun owner, general manager of a gun store and shooting range, and president of a federation overseeing local hunting, fishing and shooting clubs, he often finds himself on the opposite side to those declaring firearms a public health issue and calling for more control.
Yet, he quickly felt more comfortable after learning four of the mental health professionals at his table, all women, had handgun permits. The meeting, organized by the Ulster County Mental Health Department, a Hudson Valley community two hours north of New York City, was focused on suicide prevention — a goal they all shared.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a gun, a rope or drugs, you need to prevent suicide,” Liuni says.
Suicide trends in the United States have been increasing for decades with firearms as the leading method, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows. Nearly 90% of suicidal acts with a gun are fatal, according to one study.
In 2009, three deaths by suicide involving a firearm over the course of a single week in New Hampshire inspired a program now known as the “Gun Shop Project.” The goal was to help gun sellers recognize the signs of a person in crisis, and avoid selling or renting weapons to them. There are now “Gun Shop Projects” in more than 20 states, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
But still, Liuni was hesitant when first approached by the Ulster County Suicide Prevention Education, Awareness and Knowledge (SPEAK) program until he saw they were interested in outcomes, not changing lifestyles.
“It’s not anything about gun rights or taking guns away or anything,” he says. “It’s about preventing suicide.”
He learned indicators that could point to a person in danger, as well as ways to encourage them to find any help they needed — calling a helpline, or reaching out to a friend.
If someone came to a gun range by themselves for the first time, Liuni says, that could also be a time to engage them.
“If you can carry on a conversation with somebody for 10 or 15 minutes, you may be able to trigger a telltale sign,” he says. “Then we try to pull them aside talk to them a little bit and see if we can get them to go make a phone call.”
And though it’s not his role to delve into mental health treatment, he believes he can help by showing people the way.
A common cause
Walk into Liuni’s store and gun range, and you’ll see SPEAK flyers before you ever get near a weapon or target. Posters include photos of a group of hunters, and of two older men, one comforting the other. Both have the call to “PROTECT YOUR FAMILY — PROTECT YOUR FREEDOM — SECURE YOUR GUNS.”
Inspired by the program, Liuni suggested some of the mental health professionals attend an upcoming gun show.
“I didn’t know how they were going to react, sitting in a table in the middle of a gun show with 700 tables of guns and knives around them,” he said.
It worked. Liuni says the mental health team “took right to it” and so did those attending the event. He remembers how many people came up to the table, asked questions, and took flyers.
“Suicide touches everybody. Somebody has a family member, a friend or relative or an acquaintance,” Liuni says.
Statistics bear him out, with Ulster County having 23 people taking their own lives in 2019, at a rate of 13 deaths per 100,000 population, comparable to the overall US rate of 14.5 suicides per 100,000 population in 2019, the most recent year for which full statistics are available.
Liuni is a staunch gun-rights advocate, who believes that talk of gun control generally leads to more gun sales. He’s not a fan of New York’s strict gun laws, and especially the state’s red flag laws which he sees as taking guns away permanently instead of addressing the underlying mental health issues that may drive someone to suicide.
But when the divisions are stripped away in favor of focusing on saving lives, it’s an easier conversation to join, he says, looking back to that first meeting with mental health professionals.
“The common goal was to prevent suicide, not take away guns, not discuss … who wanted guns, who doesn’t want guns. So it took that whole thing out of the equation,” he explains. “There was a lot of people in a room that probably hated guns or didn’t want anything to do with them … (but) the discussion wasn’t about guns, it was what we could do.”
Liuni feels he is now equipped to better step in during key moments. He’s seen veterans in his hunting clubs sometimes struggling to readjust after coming home from war. He’s now more aware when a conversation sounds “off” and feels he has been able to make a difference by encouraging people to seek help, whether they are strangers or not.
A friend of his lost a son to suicide and he sat down to have coffee and talk with him about it
“You want to make sure that a suicide is not followed by another suicide, and it doesn’t take much,” he says. “Divorce, family breakup, financial troubles, you know, it’s crazy times right now … it doesn’t take much to trigger it.”
And that is where Liuni and others who are part of these programs can be disrupters.
“You can just interrupt that thought process,” Liuni says. “If you can prevent one person, you did your job.”