Crossing the aisle to save lives

UW faculty member Jennifer Stuber is part of a bipartisan effort to prevent suicides.

Many people complain about the clout of the gun rights lobby and its ability to quash firearm regulations. But this spring, one UW faculty member joined three alums to push for passage of a first-in-the-nation suicide prevention law aimed at raising awareness of suicide prevention in the gun-owning community.

The Suicide Safer Homes Law was unanimously approved in both houses of the Washington State Legislature and approved by Gov. Jay Inslee, ’73, in late March. Sen. Joe Fain (R), ’03, Rep. Tina Orwall (D), ’88, ’91, and Jeff Rochon, ’99, CEO of the Washington State Pharmacy Association, worked with Social Work Associate Professor Jennifer Stuber to craft a solution focused on education rather than firearm regulation.

“We have a huge problem with gun deaths [and] most people have no idea,” says Stuber. In 2013, for example, statistics from the Center for Disease Control show that 21,175 of the 33,000 gun-related deaths in the U.S. were suicides. The problem is even worse in Washington state, where 80 percent of all gun deaths were suicides and 50 percent of all suicides were gun-related, she adds. Stuber founded the UW-based suicide-prevention program called Forefront and became an activist after she lost her husband to a firearm suicide in 2011.

Orwall discovered Stuber wasn’t alone in her experience when they began discussing potential legislation with gun-rights supporters. “What struck me when we first started meeting was that everyone has a story to share,” says Orwall.

Working together, suicide-prevention supporters and gun-rights advocates moved the bill through the Legislature in about three months. Firearm activists urged expanding the bill to cover pharmacists and prescription medications, which account for an additional 19 percent of suicides in Washington.

“The appropriate storage of medication is something we’ve become fairly cavalier about,” explains Rochon, president of the UWAA Board of Trustees. Rochon believes pharmacists “are in a perfect position to help prevent suicides.”

The new law creates a task force run by Forefront to develop suicide-prevention messages and create training for a variety of partners including gun dealers, firing range operators and pharmacists. Pharmacists will be required to take six hours of suicide-prevention training, and firearms dealers can take a voluntary online training.

“What it really comes down to is providing education to families,” Stuber says. “If you can remove dangerous items like firearms, you can bring down the suicide rate very quickly.”