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Facing little movement in Congress, gun-control groups turn focus toward preventing suicide, handgun violence

Dorothy Paugh poses with a photo of her late son, Peter, in Washington on Friday. Peter and Paugh’s father both used guns when they died by suicide, an issue gun-control groups are shifting their focus toward. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Unable to achieve major federal gun legislation in the wake of the nation’s notorious mass shootings, U.S. gun-control groups are shifting their focus to state laws that keep guns out of the hands of those at risk of being violent or suicidal.

The approach comes as groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety acknowledge that a powerful gun lobby and entrenched American views about gun rights have made it nearly impossible to effect change in Washington.

Instead, they see stronger opportunities to intervene in the shootings that account for most of the gun-related deaths in the United States. Everytown recently began a campaign to educate people about red-flag laws, mechanisms in numerous states that can remove guns from people who pose a danger to others or themselves.

“If you truly want to continue to reduce gun deaths in this country, you have to talk about gun suicide and the tools for preventing gun suicide,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown. “It’s fair to say that it’s sort of 2.0 for us. This is just a new chapter.”

Nearly half of the nation’s 47,000 suicides in 2017 involved a firearm, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Nearly two-thirds of gun deaths in 2017 were suicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The focus on suicide is a tragically salient concern: This month, two communities that have struggled with mass shootings also have experienced suicides of those who faced the earlier trauma. On Monday, the father of a girl who was killed in the December 2012 massacre at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school was found dead of an apparent suicide; and two teenagers who attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., took their own lives this month, a little over a year after a gunman entered the school with an assault-style rifle and killed 17 people. Authorities have said one of the Parkland students used a gun in her suicide; the other two suicides are under investigation.

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“Once again, the Parkland and Newtown communities are mourning after tragedy. I’m heartbroken for these families and these re-traumatized communities,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, which is part of Everytown and was founded in the wake of the Newtown attack. “While details are still unfolding, we know that access to a gun in a moment of crisis can be the difference between life and death. When a loved one is struggling, we must do everything we can to get them the help they need to survive.

Red-flag laws allow family members or police to petition judges to remove guns from a person who is believed to be dangerous for a variety of reasons. The “One Thing You Can Do” campaign aims to educate people who live in states with red-flag laws about how they can be applied.

Thirteen states and the District have enacted such laws, many of them coming after the Parkland shooting in February 2018. New Jersey and New York have passed, but not enacted, similar laws.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a rare hearing on gun control Tuesday to examine red-flag laws. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who introduced a bipartisan federal red-flag bill last year that did not pass, said the goal is to examine how the laws work in states that have enacted them.

The National Rifle Association said it supports the concept of legislation that would prevent dangerously mentally ill people from possessing firearms. But it has not backed any of the red-flag laws that have passed in recent months because of concerns they violate gun owners’ due process. The NRA supports a federal red-flag bill sponsored by Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) and generally believes there should be criminal penalties for those who bring false charges and that individuals should be able to challenge such orders. The group also has supported suicide prevention efforts.

Everytown plans to train volunteers to talk about red-flag laws with members of their communities, as the laws are only effective if people know about them and how to alert authorities.Everytown also has purchased ads in four cities or regions where red flag laws exist: Bend, Ore.; Indianapolis; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Western Massachusetts.

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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on March 21 announced plans to implement new gun restrictions following the Christchurch attacks. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Congress has passed one piece of bipartisan gun legislation since, a measure to improve information for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System that was signed into law as part of a government spending measure in March 2018.

Gun control is considered the third rail of American politics, in­trac­table and heavily influenced by the gun lobby amid deeply entrenched cultural views about the right to bear arms. The NRA believes Congress has been unwilling to restrict gun ownership because Americans don’t want such laws.

“The NRA’s strength has always been our grass-roots organization,” said Jennifer Baker, a NRA spokeswoman. “Second Amendment voters communicate with elected officials, and in turn members of Congress continue to vote in support of our constitutional right to self-defense.”

Everytown and other gun-control groups have focused on state-level bills that make it more difficult for those convicted of domestic violence to get a gun, that allow for guns to be lawfully taken away from those who pose a danger to themselves or others, and that strengthen background checks.

The state-level shift is also practical. Many of the groups have eschewed the phrase “gun control” for “gun safety” to appeal to a broader swath of the electorate. They hope that advocating for background checks and safe storage of existing firearms attach them to policies that will garner them support with gun owners.

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Watts says she was amazed when the New Zealand government banned military-style firearms just six days after a gunman killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch this month.

“In America, a powerful gun lobby has persuaded some lawmakers to stand in the way of laws proven by research to protect people from gun violence,” Watts said. “When people see that New Zealand acted so swiftly and that in America Congress has sort of sat on its hands, they feel hopeless or helpless, and they shouldn’t.”

Everytown and other groups still believe this year could be the turning point toward movement at the federal level. Everytown’s political action fund spent $30 million, mainly in support of suburban congressional Democrats who campaigned, and won, on platforms that included gun control. Other gun-control groups also poured millions of dollars into similar efforts. And though it faces dim prospects of passing the Republican-controlled Senate, the House passed a bill requiring background checks for all gun purchases and most gun transfers last month. The House also passed a bill to close a loophole in the current background check law that allows a gun purchase if a check is not completed in three days; that bill also is unlikely to pass the Senate.

The gun-control groups also believe the NRA’s influence is starting to wane, evidenced in part by the sharp decline in the gun rights organization’s spending on midterm elections, plummeting 68 percent in 2018 compared with the 2014 midterms.

Referring to Everytown, which has received major funding from Michael Bloomberg, the NRA said it believes this is a “false narrative” pushed by politics and points to NRA-backed laws that allow for concealed carry without a permit that were passed this year in Kentucky, Oklahoma and South Dakota. The NRA also notes that 26 pro-gun laws passed in statehouses last year.

Everytown and other gun-control groups also are planning to heavily invest in the 2020 presidential campaign.Peter Ambler, executive director and co-founder of Giffords, said he hopes attention to gun tragedies will spur voters to act: “Every day that goes by where Trump and [Mitch] McConnell and Republicans in the Senate take no action, 100 more people die.”

The organizations are hoping a focus on suicide can help save lives immediately. Dorothy Paugh’s father killed himself with a gun when she was 9. Her 25-year-old son, Peter, an environmental engineer who worked testing groundwater, killed himself with a handgun in 2012.

Paugh, of Bowie, Md., believes that a red-flag law might have helped her father, who told his wife he wanted to take his life; she called friends and a family priest to help in the days before his death. Paugh wants to reduce the stigma surrounding suicide and make people aware that it can happen within any family.

“What a mass shooting does is it shows people that yes, it could happen to someone you care about. When it’s a suicide and sometimes a homicide, you think, ‘Well, that’s not going to happen,’ ” she said. “But the majority of gun deaths are suicides. These red-flag laws really do promise to help a lot of people save a lot of lives.”

The number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255), and the suicide crisis text line can be contacted by texting TALK to 741741.