Many years ago, a young woman walked into a big-box store and proceeded directly to the gun department in the sporting goods section. As she examined an inexpensive .25 caliber semi-automatic pistol, it became clear to observers that she was emotionally distraught. At one point, she wept and said she shouldn’t buy the handgun. The clerk was trained to sell, however. Soon she was filling out a 4473 form. A matter of hours later, she was dead by her own hand. The newly purchased .25, now in evidentiary parlance a “death weapon,” lay beside her.
The young woman’s devastated family sued the store and the corporation that owned it. Investigation showed that the clerk had not checked her ID properly. She turned out to be 19 years of age, too young to legally purchase a handgun. Beyond that, the corporation’s defense lawyers realized how it was going to look in court when the jury learned that their employee had ignored her crying and emotional outburst, and still “hard-sold” her the gun she used to end her own life. The corporation ended up settling out of court for a huge amount of money, an amount that probably would have bankrupted any privately owned gun shop. The chain also made the decision to stop selling handguns, a policy that endures with that company to this day.
Consider it Case One. When people die, those who survive them often want money for it. Sometimes, if they feel the death was your fault, they’ll often want revenge in criminal court as well as civil.
In Case Two, the person with the death wish entered a shooting range that offered guns for rent. He showed his ID and complied with all necessary protocols. He had a clean record and gave no indication of being anything other that a person who wanted to try a different gun on the range that night. He laid down his credit card for the rental, ammunition and targets. He then walked onto the range, loaded the gun, and killed himself. His heirs filed a lawsuit against the gun range that is still pending.
Contrast these two incidents. I don’t see where the plaintiffs have any case against the shooting range that rented the gun in the second instance. No reasonable, prudent person could have concluded from the man’s behavior that he was suicidal. The first case, of course, is something else entirely. Quite apart from the illegal sale of a handgun to a person under 21, furnishing a lethal weapon to someone who is emotionally distraught, in tears, and admitting that she doesn’t think she should have a gun, fits most any ordinary, logical person’s definition of culpable negligence.
Placing a loaded gun in lockbox makes it accessible to only the responsible person and could have prevented both the death and imprisonment seen in Case 7.
Borrowed Or Stolen
If you’re not a gun dealer or range manager, what does this have to do with you? Only this: Sometimes, suicidal people borrow guns from their friends and relatives. In Case Three, a man I know lent his .44 Mag revolver to a friend who said he wanted to try it out. The “friend” tried it out for exactly one shot, intentionally fired into his own temple. The man who lent him the gun in good faith is distraught about it to this day. Fortunately, the survivors of the deceased did not sue him into bankruptcy.
If you are the friend or relative who lends the gun, in addition to your own grief and a confirmed ticket for a long guilt trip, you may have just bought yourself a lawsuit from the family of the departed one. A recent public health survey on suicide by public health officials in New Hampshire showed that it is not unknown for people bent on self-destruction to borrow lethal weapons. This has been pointed out by the New Hampshire Firearms Safety Coalition (NHFSC), a group that has accomplished the singular feat of bringing gun owners’ rights groups, “gun control” advocates, and firearms industry professionals together in the common cause of responsibly promoting firearms safety.
NHFSC states, “According to the NH suicide database, among the total of 144 firearm suicides that occurred over a two-year period ending June 30, 2009, 20 firearms (14%) were known to have been obtained within one week of the suicide (14 of those 20 were obtained within hours of the suicide). Among these 20, 11 were purchased (10) or rented (1); the remaining 9 were borrowed or stolen. The estimate that 8% (11/144) of New Hampshire firearm suicides involved recently purchased firearms is likely an underestimate since length of time the gun was in the decedent’s possession was unknown in two-thirds of the cases.”
Cases Four, Five, and Six involved three separate individuals who passed all current background checks when they bought their guns commercially. Each used them to commit suicide shortly thereafter. One dealer joined with NHFSC to do something about it, and at this time a training program and training film for firearms retailers is in progress, with emphasis on recognizing “suicidal ideation,” or self-destructive intent. Ralph Demicco, owner of Riley’s Sport Shop in Hooksett, NH, tells gun sellers to pay particular attention to “tells,” such as the gun buyer who says “I won’t be needing that” instead of “I have one already” if asked whether he wants a cleaning kit for his newly purchased gun. The buyer who points at a gun in a showcase or on a rack and says, “I’ll take that one” without examining it may be another red flag, Demicco points out.
One member of the New Hampshire Firearms Safety Council suggests that, just as Demicco and some other dealers are now giving out suicide prevention literature and even posting suicide hotline phone numbers in their gun shops, the same might be a good idea for gun clubs. I have to agree. Remember the figure cited above on borrowed or stolen guns used in suicides? They’re borrowed or stolen from gun owners like you and me. Why shouldn’t law abiding gun owners be made familiar with the indicators of suicidal ideation? None of us wants to be duped into becoming an unwilling accomplice to the self-inflicted death of another.
Recognizing The Danger
In Case Seven, a New Jersey man was an enthusiastic hunter, shooter and reloader who had even loaded up some extra-light .38 Special cartridges for his recoil-sensitive young wife. She attempted suicide.
Horrified, the young husband locked up all the guns. His wife came home from treatment…time passed…and she seemed to be normal again. She mentioned that she would feel safer if he kept a gun in their bedroom. He put the .357 revolver back, loaded with the extra-soft handloaded .38 Special ammunition.
The night came when he found her in the bedroom holding that gun to her head. He tried to pull it away from her, and in the struggle it went off. The bullet struck her in the head, fatally. Autopsy showed no gunshot residue, however, and because the light handloads had been made using +P cases, the crime lab tested with factory +P and determined that if his story were true, there would have been gunshot residue. The court refused to accept his reloading records or the remaining ammunition as evidence (it was, after all, “evidence manufactured by the defendant”) and after a three-trial ordeal (he was bankrupt after the first one), he was convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison. He remains today a convicted felon and ex-convict who cannot legally own a firearm.
While this case is best known as an example of the evidentiary problems that can accrue when we put handloads in our defensive firearms, it also stands as a classic example of the dangers of leaving deadly weapons available to those we know have a history of suicidal ideation or, in this case, an actual suicide attempt. Many have said of Case Seven that anyone who left a gun accessible to someone with such a history was sufficiently negligent to sustain a manslaughter charge as well as civil liability. That was my first thought when I was initially consulted on the case…but the more I thought about it, the more I changed my mind.
It’s human nature to “forgive and forget” the transgressions and dangerous behavior of those we most love. Anyone who has lived with an alcoholic or a drug abuser can tell you that when such a person seems to be acting normally, there is a sense of blessed relief and a desperate wanting to believe that they’re all right again. I suspect that the young man in Case Seven succumbed to that understandable wishful thinking. If he had simply kept the gun where he could reach it and she couldn’t, the tragedy that ended her life and destroyed his might never have happened. We can learn from his experience, but only if we face harsh reality.
The guy who wants to borrow your gun—did he say “I’d like to try deer hunting” or “Do you have a 1911 I can borrow to try CDP division at the IDPA match this week?” Or did he say simply, “I wanna borrow a gun.” Explore the motivation of the request. Apply your life experience and judgment of character. Trust that judgment. If something doesn’t “smell right,” don’t lend the firearm.
Has the borrower, or the person who wants to buy your gun in a face-to-face personal sale instead of through a dealer, been through a life crisis recently? Has this person shown any sign of depression or despair? Do they have severe, perhaps downward-spiraling financial, legal, or medical problems? Substance abuse issues? Crushing personal issues? All these things are “red flags.”
People who have decided to end their own lives will often go through “departure ritual.” They may give up a job they loved for no apparent reason. There may be a sudden, dramatic change in appearance, a “makeover” if you will. There will very likely be a putting of affairs in order, including visits to old friends they haven’t contacted in years. A huge red flag is the giving away cherished possessions. It is an action that means the person has made the irrevocable decision to leave this life, and wants the things he loved to be looked after by someone who will care about them as much as he did.
Another thing to watch for is the person who has been in crisis, but suddenly, inexplicably seems to have gotten over it and be normal again, as in Case Seven. Some psychologists call it “the calm before the storm.” They seem relaxed and happy because they have made a decision that, in their minds, will end all their problems. Only they know that this decision is the decision to end their lives.
Remember the point made earlier, that “suicide weapons” are not just bought or borrowed: they may also be stolen. In Case Eight, a big-city police supervisor who was facing huge legal problems had his guns taken from him by the department, pending the outcome of the matter. However, he was able to enter a police locker room, and gaining access to a pistol a brother officer had left in his locker, he stole the gun and used it to end his life.
Civil liability, criminal liability, and above all, heart-breaking human tragedy lie in wait if we become the unwitting “provider” of a suicide weapon. As unpleasant as the topic is, it is one to which all of us who lawfully own firearms need to pay attention.