Feds funding Ohio study that could lead to regulating shooting ranges in attempt to decrease suicide rates

In most cases, suicide is a solitary event and yet it has often far-reaching repercussions for many others. It is rather like throwing a stone into a pond; the ripples spread and spread.
- Alison Wertheimer, "A Special Scar"

By Chad D. Baus

According to a recent cover story by Steph Greegor in Columbus' The Other Paper, two incidents of suicide that have been carried out at an Ohio shooting range in the past two years have at least one prevention advocate, with financial backing from the Obama administration's Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Ohio Department of Health, calling for increased regulations.

From the story:

Those who knew her were shocked at the news that Jacqueline Scott had ended her life. Just 24-years-old, Scott was a graduate student and teaching assistant in the arts program at Ohio State University and described as "happy" by her students. No one would have guessed that in January, she would drive to the AimHi New Albany Shooting Range, sign waivers that she understood the dangers of guns, watch a gun safety video, rent a 9 mm pistol, shoot a few rounds at a paper target, put the gun down for a few moments, then pick it back up and shoot herself in the chest.

She was pronounced dead an hour later at Mount Carmel St. Ann's Hospital.

In hindsight, there may have been several points along the way where someone might have intervened had they known the signs. While her students thought Scott was happy, her friends had noticed her mood had shifted. Scott herself could have sought help from any of the many social- and suicide services in the county. But when those lines of defense faltered, the last destination for intervention was the shooting range itself, according to Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation executive director Carolyn Givens.

"What you're talking about highlights the issue of location and means, which is critical," she said. "It's part of a larger puzzle which is complicated at best."

In fact, it was the second suicide to occur on the AimHi property in 16 months. The first was in September of 2008, when a 59-year-old woman purchased a handgun, then walked into the range's parking lot and killed herself.

Are the two simply coincidence, or cause for concern?

Ohio's 162 shooting ranges have no legal culpability for suicides on their properties. And, according to the federal gun-control Brady Law of 1994, only those purchasing a firearm are required to undergo background checks. Those renting a firearm, as is commonly practiced at ranges, do not.

"Basically, what the Brady Act does is, it makes you do a background check for the transfer of a firearm," said local attorney Derek DeBrosse, who specializes in gun law. "They don't consider renting a gun a transfer, unless they're taking it off the premise."

Scott was on the premise. And she alone pulled the trigger. There were no local, state or federal regulations requiring the shooting range to screen its customers or conduct background checks. But should there be? Are ranges responsible when they provide a gun that leads to suicide?

Health professionals admit that it's difficult for even loved ones to detect when a person may be suicidal, let alone staff at a shooting range. But they should have some degree of accountability, said Givens.

Speaking as someone who has personally experienced the loss of a family member to suicide, I can certainly relate to the types of questions that one asks themselves in the wake of such a tragedy. But one question that I never asked is what rules or laws could have have been imposed on society as a whole that could have prevented the loss of my loved one.

It is normal to replay events in one's mind, looking for clues, potential signs that may have been overlooked, etc. Hind-sight is, indeed, 20/20. But just as the story indicates, all too often the signs just aren't apparent, even to those closest to the person who is contemplating such things. And if it's not evident to family and friends, how in the world could anyone expect it to be detected by strangers who are operating a shooting range?

Again, from the story:

The Ohio Violent Death Registry, which will standardize how Ohio's 88 counties report suicide deaths, is expected to be implemented by the end of the year, said Givens. And, she said, it should provide the statistics needed to start a discussion with legislators on setting public policy to regulate gun rentals and perhaps institute increased safety measures at places like shooting ranges.

Not everyone agrees

"That's ridiculous," said Steve Yuszka, co-owner of the Powder Room shooting range in Powell. Using a suicide registry to regulate the gun industry is like "regulating utensils to stop obesity," he said.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien told the newspaper that "in terms of criminal prosecution, our office would not be involved" because no laws exist to charge a gun range with any liability should someone come in and rent a gun that leads to a crime on the premises.

Derek DeBrosse, identified in the story as "a local attorney specializing in gun laws," is quoted as saying "the only lawsuit I would foresee (someone) bringing is a wrongful death suit for negligence," said DeBrosse. "It's a matter of what the duty of the gun range is and if they breeched that duty. And as long as they're going through reasonable diligence and explaining the risks, I don't think someone would be successful in a civil suit. How can you hold somebody liable for a criminal act using your property? From a legal standpoint it doesn't compute."

According to the Ohio Revised Code, the due diligence of a shooting range in Ohio is to "adopt rules establishing generally accepted standards for shooting ranges. These rules shall be no more stringent than national rifle association standards." Those standards, according to the ORC, need only include, "standards for the limitation and suppression of noise, standards for the hours of operation of shooting ranges of the various types and at the various locations of ranges, and standards for public safety."

AimHi shooting range meets all of those requirements, according to its website, and Jacqueline Scott filled out all of the required paperwork, signed all the waivers and was placed with an instructor for the first few rounds she fired.

AimHi shooting range did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

The Powder Room shooting range in Powell also holds itself to the same standards required by the ORC.

Yuszka, the Powder Room co-owner, said that should be enough.

"You're talking about the human psyche, which is still being studied and isn't fully understood," he said, "You can't regulate the human mind. How do you do that? You can't. The human mind is fragile."

And because of its fragility, said Yuszka, it would be impossible and unfair to put the burden of trying to identify possible suicide victims on the shooting ranges.

"If someone is going to commit suicide, they're going to figure out how to do it because they don't want to be alive," Yuszka said.

"It's not something you can do anything about," he added. "Why people do what they do is a study in itself."

But Givens, of the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation, argues that while you can't regulate the human mind, you can regulate certain locations that are popular for suicides because of their accessibility to a weapon or their specific location. And the violent death registry will quantify that notion, she said.

Shooting ranges, said Givens, are popular because of the ease to obtain the weapon. In fact, nationally, suicides at gun ranges have been popular since the early 1990s.

But will regulating a particular tool that can be used to commit suicide result in a reduction in the act itself? Two separate studies, in Australia[1] and Canada[2], prove that the answer is "no."

The studies, which were conducted even as more restrictive firearms legislation went into effect in those countries, demonstrated that while more restrictive gun laws resulted in a decrease in firearms suicide, other methods, such as hanging and cutting, increased.

Studies have also shown that mandatory safe storage requirements do not appear to affect gun suicide rates or juvenile accidental gun death.[3][4]

Despite there being plenty of proof that regulating shooting ranges would not work to accomplish the end result of preventing suicide, it appears our tax dollars are about to be spent investigating the idea anyways:

[Givens] has been selected to sit on the advisory council of the Ohio Violent Death Registry, which will be run by the Ohio Department of Health and is expected to be implemented by the end of the year. The registry, she said, has been partially funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control for a total of three years and is expected to have three staff members.

"This is intelligence we're going to get and make a difference in public policy standards," she said. "It would also allow us to look at intervention methods in a greater way."

She said there are three pieces to the suicide puzzle. One, location, is key to proving to legislators just how important it is to regulate typical suicide locations.

The other two pieces of the suicide puzzle are awareness and intervention, she said.

"The issue has to be an awareness of the warning signs and being more aware of each other, which we get away from in our society," said Givens. "Should the firing ranges be screening? Well, we all need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of depression and drug abuse, because those things go hand-in-hand with suicide ideation."

"The whole point will be to have more discussions on the firing range issue. Is that an issue? In the grand scheme of things, it's part of the puzzle,” she said. "Do we need to have a questionnaire available (for someone to fill out that determines suicidal tendencies)? Do we need to have screenings? Do we need to have the signs and symptoms posted? It could be a deterrent."

Whether that deterrent is stricter regulation of gun rentals or simply hanging signs will be up to the Ohio legislature, said Givens. Yuszka thinks the idea is preposterous.

"I think that would be more of a discussion for some high level psychologist on whether someone would read a sign and say 'Oh, I shouldn't commit suicide because they have a sign,'" said Yuszka. "It's like the gun signs outside of banks that say 'No guns.' What is the criminal going to do? Say, 'Oh, I can't rob this bank because there's a sign on the door?' No. It all sounds good, but it doesn't make sense."

It clearly doesn't make sense, and yet, even in these tough economic times, tax dollars are being poured in to the idea that such regulations could make a difference. When someone insists on testing a theory against which there is already plenty of evidence, it suggests to me that ulterior motives may be at work. And since the story mentions the CDC, my concerns become larger.

According to a recent editorial in the Washington Times, despite having been forbidden by Congress from doing research on gun-control issues, the CDC is at it again:

With a wave of a hand, the CDC has simply redefined gun-control research so the ban no longer applies.

They're not researching guns; they're researching alcohol sales and their impact on gun violence, or researching how teens carrying guns affect the rates of non-gun injuries. "These particular grants do not address gun control; rather they deal with the surrounding web of circumstances," wrote National Institutes of Health (NIH) spokesman Don Ralbovsky.

Gun-control advocates claim that banning the CDC from examining gun control amounts to a gag order on science. After all, what can be wrong with further scientific inquiry? But the issue isn't about scientific inquiry. It is whether government resources should be used to promote an ideological agenda.

Take the Obama administration's justification for its new gun research. "Gun-related violence is a public health problem - it diverts considerable health care resources away from other problems and, therefore, is of interest to NIH," wrote the agency spokesman in an e-mail responding to questions from Republican members of Congress about new grants the CDC is giving out. The statement assumes the conclusion of the research before the first study is done.

...The CDC's brazen end run around restrictions on gun-control research is hardly surprising given that when President Obama served on the board of the Joyce Foundation, it was the largest private funder of gun-ban research in the country. Now he has the resources of the whole federal government.

First we'll get the half-baked studies followed by fawning press coverage. Then Democratic politicians and activists will pretend the gun restrictions they've always wanted were spurred by the new government research.

This Washington Times essay was published October 22, 2009. Both predictions in the first sentence of the final paragraph are already coming true here in Ohio.

Chad D. Baus is the Buckeye Firearms Association Vice Chairman.

[1] "Trends in hanging and firearm suicide rates in Australia: substitution of method?," http://www.atypon-link.com/GPI/doi/abs/10.1521/suli., Authors: Diego De Leo, MD, PhD, Jonathan Dwyer, PhD, David Firman, Kerryn Neulinger, B Behsc Grad, DIP PSYCH

[2] "Gun Control and Rates of Firearms Violence in Canada and the United States: A Comment," http://www.questia.com/googleScholar.qst?docId=5000258711, Authors: David Lester , Antoon A. Leenaars

[3] "Measures of Gun Ownership Levels for Macro-Level Crime and Violence Research," http://www.hawaii.edu/hivandaids/Measures_of_Gun_Ownership_Levels_for_Ma..., Author: Gary Kleck

[4] "Safe-Storage Gun Laws: Accidental Deaths, Suicides, and Crime," http://johnrlott.tripod.com/whitney.pdf, Authors: John Lott , John E. Whitley.

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