Although the topic is grim — suicide — I am very excited to welcome to my Sociology of Guns seminar today two guests who have unique perspectives on the issue. Michael Sodini is founder and President of Walk the Talk America (WTTA), and Rob Pincus is a trustee of the organization.
WTTA was founded in 2018 with the goal of reducing suicides and other negative outcomes associated with firearms. I have been remiss in not writing about the organization before now. I actually spent some time at the WTTA booth at the Shooting Hunting Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show in January 2019, and Pincus (making his 3rd consecutive class appearance this year) spoke in my Sociology of Guns seminar in Spring 2019 about the issue of suicide and the work of WTTA.
The idea behind Walk the Talk America is simple: “Gun owners, firearm sellers, and mental health professionals must band together to protect the rights of all citizens and reduce the number of deaths by suicide.” But in this era of either/or thinking, the conjunction “and” is actually a gap that must be bridged between mental health and safe firearm ownership.
Fearing additional regulation of firearms, gun people sometimes reflexively dismiss the idea that guns can be a risk factor for suicide. More thoughtful critics highlight the importance of intentions (people who really want to kill themselves choose guns) and the possibility of substitution (people who really want to kill themselves will find a way).
From the other side, ignorance of guns and gun culture can lead to an excessive focus on guns as a risk factor for suicide on the part of mental health professionals and public health scholars. This contributes to the reflexive defensiveness on the part of gun owners who could be allies in the sense that both mental health professionals and gun owners are anti-suicide.
But this defensiveness can become an excuse for doing nothing rather than trying to find creative ways to reduce suicide risk by working with rather than against gun culture. Walk the Talk America represents an effort by individuals who are deeply involved in gun culture — the president of a firearms importer (Sodini) and a gun trainer and educator (Pincus) — to address the problem of suicide head on in ways that take the beliefs, values, and norms of gun owners and of mental health professionals seriously.
Among the initiatives featured on the WTTA website are “cultural competence” classes for mental health clinicians to learn about gun culture and (in partnership with the Mental Health Association) a free online mental health screening tool.
I know my students are as excited as I am to learn more about the work of WTTA in relation to the negative outcome of suicide today.