Project ChildSafe is a nationwide program sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which provides free gun locks to communities as part of its mission to promote firearms safety and education.
It found a willing partner locally in the Johnson County Mental Health Center.
But while Project ChildSafe’s aim is to reduce the number of accidental shooting deaths among children — there were an average of 1,297 per year in the U.S. from 2012 to 2014, according to one study — there’s an ancillary benefit in the county’s eyes helping drive the partnership.
“Research tells us that reducing the availability of highly lethal and commonly used suicide methods has been associated with declines in suicide rates as much as 30 to 50 percent in other countries,” Johnson County Mental Health Center Director Tim DeWeese said in a statement announcing the program.
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According to the county’s news release, firearms are the most common method of suicide, accounting for half of suicide deaths — and that figure is increasing.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide deaths by firearms rose slightly from just under 50 percent in 2015 to 51 percent in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available.
Nationally, the number of suicides in the U.S. rose 1.8 percent to 44,965 from 2015 to 2016 — with nearly 23,000 involving a gun.
“Good gun safety is simply keeping your handguns and ammunition stored in a way that protects everyone,” said Shawn Reynolds, deputy police chief in Olathe.
The problem is even more acute in Kansas, where the age-adjusted death rate from suicide per 100,000 population of 16.2 was significantly above the nation average in 2015 (13.5 per 100,000).
Johnson County was even higher still at 16.8 per 100,000 population.
“Kansas is higher than the national average, and Johnson County leads the state,” DeWeese said. “That’s not an area that we want to lead in, but we have the highest suicide rate in Kansas.”
It’s also a problem that seems to be getting worse rather than improving.
“It’s difficult to get a good idea of what the rate of suicide is in our community, because there’s just no good way to track it,” DeWeese said. “What we do know is, with the numbers that we have, we’ve seen an increase and it continues to rise. It’s to the point where I would call it an epidemic, but it’s basically going, for the most part, unnoticed.”
DeWeese said teen suicide tends to generate headlines, but there’s little discussion about the problem as it relates to the most vulnerable demographic — middle-aged white males.
If distributing gun locks helps reduce the incidence of suicide by firearms, DeWeese considers it a positive step, especially considering the program’s other potential benefits.
“If we even get a slight improvement and we keep kids safe here in Johnson County, then, in my mind, it’s a win-win,” DeWeese said. “That’s why we made the decision to do it.”
So far, the program has been popular, too.
Johnson County ran through its supply of 500 cable-style free gun locks so quickly that the Johnson County Mental Health Center ordered more in early January.
“We didn’t think we’d go through them so quick,” DeWeese said. “I think we’ve gone through 500 in the last 60 days.”
The Johnson County Suicide Prevention Coalition also is a partner in the effort to continue making gun locks available to the public.
“From my standpoint, it’s an ongoing effort,” DeWeese said. “As long as we see the boxes keep being emptied, we’ll make them available to the folks that walk in and grab them. … We’ve made a commitment at this agency. … For right now, we’re planning on making these available for the foreseeable future.”
Residents may pick up free gun locks at the Mental Health Center’s three main locations: 6000 Lamar Ave. in Mission, 1125 W. Spruce St. in Olathe, and 6440 Nieman Road in Shawnee. The locks also are available at area police stations, hospitals and other community locations through a partnership with Project ChildSafe.
Contact the Johnson County Suicide Prevention Coalition at firstname.lastname@example.org with suggestions for other locations that might be a good distribution spot.
Elaine Adams, Special to The Star, mcontributed to this report.