The family of a Walmart employee who fatally shot himself in 2019 hours after buying a gun from the store has sued the retail giant for negligence, alleging those at the store knew the man’s history of mental illness and recent threats of suicide yet proceeded with the sale.

The family of 23-year-old Jacob Mace alleges a series of breakdown in policies and violations of state gun sale laws that could have prevented his death, according to a lawsuit filed in Tuesday in Prince George’s County, Md. Among them were failures by store employees to ask screening questions before the sale and to refuse the sale despite allegedly noticing Mace had been drinking when he bought the gun during a morning break.

“That’s one of the sadder things about this case — there are multiple points like that,” attorney Kevin Sullivan told The Washington Post on Thursday. “Had an opportunity been taken to stop this [sale], the outcome would have been different. The most specific is the actual handing over of the firearm, but there were numerous balls that were dropped.”

Walmart declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation, but offered condolences to Mace’s family.

“We are heartbroken when we lose a member of our Walmart family and our thoughts continue to go out to family and loved ones of Jacob Mace,” Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said in a statement to The Post. “We are committed to being a responsible firearms dealer and take these allegations seriously.”

The lawsuit comes as families and policymakers are still grappling with the firearms death toll from 2020, which was America’s deadliest year for gun violence in almost two decades. At least 43,551 people died of gun violence last year, according to the most recent data from the Gun Violence Archive. More than half of those deaths were gun suicides.

In the United States, more than half of all suicides are by firearms. Compared to other methods that do not as consistently result in death, 85 to 95 percent of all suicidal incidents result in death when a gun is used, according to Michael D. Anestis, who researches firearms, suicide and public safety at Rutgers University and is executive director of The New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center.

“The typical story of American suicide is a gun that’s already been in the home,” Anestis added. And someone will become suicidal down the road and it’s there, the gun is in the environment.”

Mace was married with two young boys. His family had already once taken away a gun he owned before he purchased another shotgun from Walmart, according to the lawsuit.

Sullivan, a Maryland-based attorney who partnered with the nonprofit Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in the case, said their lawsuit is not about the Second Amendment but rather public health.

“This is not a case that is seeking to stop gun sales,” he said. “It’s a case that’s seeking to stop illegal and an irresponsible gun ownership, and that’s something gun owners and non-gun owners can agree on.”

Walmart’s history with gun sales is a complicated one. As the world’s largest retailer, it’s also considered the biggest seller of firearms and ammunition. Over the past 25 years, the company has retreated from gun sales in certain markets only to resume them in response to both industry and political trends.

Major gun retailers like Walmart can play a significant role in affecting gun-sale policies across the industry, said Erin C. Davis, a lawyer with Brady who is co-counsel in Mace’s lawsuit.

“Policies and procedures implemented by a big company can set the tone for smaller companies. It can have a ripple effect and change lives,” Davis said. “Nationally, gun dealers have an obligation to act with reasonable care.”

It was the standard of “reasonable care” that Walmart failed to meet, the lawsuit claims.

Mace began working part-time in maintenance at the Walmart store in St. Mary’s County, Md., in 2018. His family said Mace struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts since childhood, but was formally diagnosed with major depressive disorders and borderline personality disorders in June 2019 while working for Walmart.

The lawsuit claims Mace had been open with his health struggles with colleagues and even his supervisor, who was allegedly aware that a mental health crisis was behind a hospitalization stint that forced Mace to miss work, according to the lawsuit.

Mace was allegedly in the midst of an acute mental health crisis in the days before his death, texting a colleague about “crippling” depression and revealing he had tried to kill himself that week and would try again with a gun. The colleague shared the text with Mace’s supervisor and suggested Mace be added to the store’s discretionary “blacklist,” which it can use to deny gun sales to people even if they aren’t barred under state and federal law. The suit alleges Mace was never added to the store’s blacklist.

Three days before his death, Mace messaged a colleague who worked in firearm sales asking what kinds of shotguns Walmart sold and which was “cheapest,” according to the lawsuit.

Roughly two and a half hours into his morning shift on Nov. 15, 2019, Mace purchased a shotgun during his break. Store colleagues noticed Mace appeared to have been drinking, but sold him the gun after he passed background checks. The lawsuit alleges employees did not ask Mace basic screening questions about his state of mind or what he wanted the gun for.

When Mace never returned from his break, friends and family called 911 to look for him. He was found little more than two hours after the timestamp on his receipt, inside his truck parked in a nearby lot, the lawsuit says. He died of a single gunshot wound.

Anestis said the realities of suicide prevention make assigning responsibilities to specific individuals difficult.

“If people who are trained to do this struggle to do it effectively, it’s tough to go to people who are outside the field of mental health and expect them to do it,” he said.

Anestis stressed that suicide is complex but preventable.

“There were several people who did things right,” he said. “There was the family who knew [Mace] was having a hard time and took that firearm away. And the friend he texted told someone. And that shows how difficult it is in a moment of crisis for someone to get help.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

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