Gun safety and suicide prevention brochures are on display next to guns for sale at a firearms store in Montrose in this 2016 photo. (AP file photo)

A new think tank in Colorado Springs focused on decreasing suicide deaths using guns is gaining steam with about 50 participants and a clear message they say everyone should hear.

“We agree the number of deaths we’re seeing from firearms is unacceptable, and we can do better in terms of reducing deaths and injuries,” said Dr. Erik Wallace, a practicing internist, associate dean and professor at the Colorado Springs branch of the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Wallace is armed with what he calls “data-driven solutions” that be enacted immediately.

Those include locking up firearms at home and storing firearms and ammunition separately.

“If people simply did that, we’d see our suicide rates go down,” Wallace said. “Firearm violence is a public health crisis. We’re concerned about the injuries and deaths we see as avoidable.”

El Paso County had 125 firearm-related deaths in 2018, according to a recently released annual report from the coroner’s office. That’s up from 64 in 2001.

About half of suicides are gun-related. Of the 152 completed suicides of teens and adults countywide last year, 80 were by firearms.

The likelihood of dying from a suicide attempt using a gun is higher than by other means, Wallace said.

Eighty-five out of 100 people who use a gun to take their lives succeed, compared with two out of 100 who ingest pills, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those who attempt suicide and fail, just 10 percent retry and die.

“So if I don’t succeed and don’t have access to a lethal means, odds are I’ll go on and live,” Wallace said.

Colorado has higher rates of suicide and firearm deaths than the national average, Wallace said, and El Paso County’s rates are higher than the rest of the state.

“There are things we can all do to recognize people who may be at risk of attempting suicide and provide them with the resources they need to get help,” he said.

“We see a lot of attention on motor vehicle accidents — there were 67 deaths in El Paso County last year — but 80 people completed suicide with a firearm, and I haven’t seen the attention it deserves.”

Death threat spurs research

Wallace formed the Colorado Springs Firearms Safety Think Tank in December.

Several years ago, Wallace received a death threat and researched buying a gun to protect his family. He concluded that having a gun in the home, especially with children around, “greatly increased the risks of suicides and unintentional injury.”

He’s been studying the issue for several years, has published articles and talks about firearms safety to his medical school students.

Politics are not invited to the table at think tank meetings, but doctors and other health care professionals, gun-rights advocates, business owners, representatives from the military, educators, clergy, nonprofit leaders, law enforcement and common folks are.

“I’m glad to see there’s a momentum where people are starting to see we need to be more diligent about locking up weapons when there are children in the house,” said Nikki Smith, a Colorado Springs mother of two who’s delivering the same message through Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, a national organization with a local chapter.

Smith has spoken with parents who say the issue is not important to them because they don’t have a gun in their house.

“I say, ‘But do your friends, does your family own firearms and your children play over there?’” Smith said. “We want to make the conversation as easy as asking about one’s pets. It isn’t children’s responsibility to stay safe; it’s an adult’s responsibility.”

Wallace realizes a conversation about anything having to do with guns can be polarizing.

But it doesn’t have to be, he says.

“There’s a lot of fear,” Wallace said. “As you start talking to people about this, almost everyone has a personal story to tell.”

People are either afraid of themselves or a loved one being shot at school, at home or in a public place, and there’s fear that guns or gun rights will be taken away from advocates.

Getting gun advocates on board to promote the message the group is disseminating is a big push.

“I’m not saying guns are bad or you should get rid of your guns,” Wallace said. “I’m saying these are the steps you can take to reduce your risk of injury or death by firearms, before it happens.”

A gun at the ready

Paul Paradis, owner of Paradise Firearms in Colorado Springs and a former criminal investigator for the state public defender’s office, said he’s been a “longtime proponent for gun rights” and simultaneously a “firm believer in gun responsibility.”

He has no problem with gun owners locking up firearms used for hunting or weapons not immediately needed.

“I would agree if you’re not using your gun, lock it up,” he said. “That makes it harder for thieves and kids to get to.”

While safes can be expensive, guns can be inexpensively taken out of commission — by removing a needed bolt on rifles, for example, Paradis said.

But he balks at the thought that guns used for personal protection not be readily available if needed.

Wallace said there are safes that can be attached to a nightstand or the wall by a bed that are easily accessible.

True, Paradis said, but not fast enough for him.

“You can load a gun quickly, but not quick enough,” he said. “First thing in a violent encounter is you freeze because none of us expect that to happen. You wonder what’s happening, and you react slowly. How defenseless do you want to make me, and do you have that right?”

Gun safes are not foolproof, Paradis added, pointing to last month’s STEM School shooting in Highlands Ranch by teenagers who smashed a parents’ locked gun cabinet to obtain weapons.

Paradis advocates for gun owners to find ways to conceal a gun that’s loaded for self-defense. He believes no one single thing will solve the complex issue of needless gun deaths.

Many military veterans Paradis knows refuse to get help if they’re suicidal because they “don’t want their gun rights involved.”

Paradis has experience — his daughter committed suicide 12 years ago. She was intoxicated and using drugs at the time of her death, he said. As a result, more than 100 parents of children who have died by suicide have sought him out to talk.

“It’s the worst thing to go through as a parent,” he said. “You can kick yourself in the ass, but you never know what was in their minds.”

Paradis said he hopes for “a number of different things that are nonintrusive to people’s lives and don’t involve the government,” to give the community time to figure something out, like recognizing the warning signs of suicide.

Wallace said he knows it’s a “challenging topic.” And people tend to be on one extreme or the other when it comes to the gun debate, he said.

“The reality is most people are somewhere in the middle and are open to education, information and conversation,” Wallace said.

“It takes people coming together and finding ways to improving outcomes that are palatable to the community.”

The next think tank meeting will be 9-10:30 a.m. July 10 at the Lane Center, 4863 N. Nevada Ave. The public is invited to attend.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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