What does it look like?
The woman at the counter of Keith's Sporting Goods wanted a handgun. She
wasn't interested in price, quality or how to use it safely. She spoke
slowly that day in June as she made one request: Would the clerk load
Maria Ward doesn't judge her customers. Americans have a right to buy
firearms, after all. But this woman seemed traumatized. Ward worried
she planned to hurt someone.
"I'm sorry," Ward told her. "I'm not going to sell you a firearm."
Ward, who owns the Gresham gun store with her husband, then did
something she'd never done before. She warned the Oregon State Police
not to allow anyone else to sell Brenda Nyhof Dunn a gun. But the
agency, which performs background checks for most gun sales in Oregon,
told Ward there was nothing it could do under the law.
The next day, Nyhof Dunn drove to Dick's Sporting Goods in Gresham.
She bought a rifle and ammunition, according to the police report, which
included a receipt from the transaction. She paid $10 to have the
Oregon State Police perform a background check, which she easily passed.
Hours later, she fatally shot herself. She was 36.
Sure , she could have used another method to kill herself--she tried hanging, but using a gun is a far more effective way to kill (after all, these are tools for killing or causing serious bodily injury). Few people who try suicide by gun survive -- 15 percent, according to a national study of 2001 data, compared with 98 to 99 percent of Americans who chose pills or cut themselves.
"Firearms are intrinsically lethal," said Catherine Barber, director of
the Harvard School of Public Health's Means Matter, a public education
program on firearms and suicide. "They are fast. They don't allow a
change of mind or the possibility of rescue."
The Oregon State Police approves, delays or denies gun purchases after a
check of statewide and federal databases to see, among other things, if
a buyer has outstanding warrants, felony convictions or involuntary
commitments for mental illness.
Ward, the gunshop owner, said in an interview that she went as far as
warning the state not to perform a background check on Nyhof Dunn if
she turned up at another dealer.
"You should not sell her anything," Ward recalled telling a state police employee.
Mathew Oeder, who oversees the state police Firearms Instant Check System
could not provide The Oregonian with specifics about Nyhof Dunn's case.
However, Oeder said the agency cannot delay or deny a person's firearm
purchase based on the observation of a firearms dealer.
However, suicide victims are far more likely to use a gun already in
the home. On the other hand, a small percentage buy one in the days or hours before their
death. A study of suicides by firearm from 2007 through 2009 in New
Hampshire found 8 percent of victims purchased a gun within a week of
their death, most within hours of the act.
Armed with the data, public health experts took their message to New
Hampshire gun store owners, asking them to make suicide hotline
information available in their stores and teaching them to spot the
signs of someone who might be suicidal.
Of course, it's all up to the gun store owner if they want to make a buck, or save a life.