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More Black Americans are buying guns. Is it driving up Black suicide rates?

Sharis Lewis of Florissant, Missouri, tries a 12-gauge shotgun with the help of her husband, Russell, at the SharpShooter, an indoor range near south St. Louis.
Alex Smith/KCUR
Sharis Lewis of Florissant, Missouri, tries a 12-gauge shotgun with the help of her husband, Russell, at the SharpShooter, an indoor range near south St. Louis.

When Russell and Sharis Lewis want to unwind, they pack up their guns and drive from their home in Florissant, a suburb north of St. Louis, to an indoor range called the SharpShooter on the city's south side.

Russell dons big, protective headphones, carefully lays out his firearms and selects a Panzer Arms M4 12-gauge semiautomatic shotgun. He takes aim at paper targets, including one labeled "Snowflakes," and squeezes the trigger. The gun gives off a deafening blast, and the recoil can be felt through the air from several feet back.

"It's just something about the power and being able to release that and let it go downrange," Russell says. "It's just a nice thing to do. It relaxes me."

Russell's wife Sharis practices with her new handgun, a SIG Sauer P365. She bought it because she's been worried about increasing crime in her area.

St. Louis had the highest homicide rate among large U.S. cities in 2020, according to FBI data.

Gun buying among African Americans has soared in recent years. At the same time, suicide rates have increased among young black men. Experts believe the trends may be linked, because having a gun in the home increases suicide risk exponentially, for every person who lives there. This means gun-safety efforts, as well as suicide prevention programs, need to proactively address race and cultural differences.

Self-defense is the main reason for buying guns, according to a Pew Research survey, but many Black owners say that, for them, self-defense can be a particularly thorny concept, one that exists in a complicated tension with their feelings about police conduct and racism.

Sharis started carrying a firearm because she doesn't feel comfortable with the idea of calling police for protection. The Lewises live not far from Ferguson, Missouri, where in 2014, the killing of Black resident Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson became an early catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement.

"Some people, they rely on law enforcement, which, for African Americans, that's not always the safest course of action either," Sharis says. "I would rather control the situation."

As gun ownership soars, keeping homes safe

Sharis and Russell are part of a growing cohort of African American gun owners. Nationwide, surveys found that 25% percent of Black adults owned a gun in 2021, up from 14% just six years ago.

The state of Missouri doesn't require a license to buy a gun. And most adults can carry firearms without permits in many public places across the state.

But even gun enthusiasts say that the newest generation of gun owners sometimes lack the training and information they need to keep themselves safe around firearms — especially when it comes to suicide prevention.

Homicides in Missouri reached a record high in 2020, spurring even more people to buy guns. But the number of suicides in the state was even higher than that, and the suicide rate has been on the rise for the past decade.

That's where Bill Mays does his work — in the fraught space where rates of gun ownership and suicide intersect.

Strolling into a St. Louis pawn shop, Mays calls out a cheery greeting as he makes his way to the gun counter, at the very back. He makes regular visits to spots like this across the city, to drop off new stacks of gun-safety pamphlets, and talk with shop owners about keeping people who may be suicidal from obtaining weapons.

As a firearms trainer and a concealed carry advocate, Mays has been part of the St. Louis gun community for years. He says he knows how to talk with fellow gun enthusiasts in ways that health experts usually can't —especially about sensitive subjects like suicide risk, mental health issues, and crisis management for gun owners.

"It's a matter of, if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, then what is it? I'm a duck!" Mays says. "So I can talk. But if you come in there and you a hen and you talking to ducks, they not gonna understand that language."

Bill Mays, a member of the Safer Homes Collaborative, outside his home in the Tower Grove East neighborhood of St. Louis. The Collaborative works on suicide prevention through safe gun storage and crisis intervention.
/ Brian Munoz/St. Louis Public Radio
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Brian Munoz/St. Louis Public Radio
Bill Mays, a member of the Safer Homes Collaborative, outside his home in the Tower Grove East neighborhood of St. Louis. The Collaborative works on suicide prevention through safe gun storage and crisis intervention.

Mays is Black and works for the Safer Homes Collaborative, a project based at the University of Missouri–St. Louis involving gun owners across Missouri. The effort aims to convince gun sellers, gun owners and their family members to create systems for temporarily removing access to firearms for people experiencing a crisis.

Suicide is usually an impulsive act. One study found that nearly half of survivors reported that the time between first considering suicide, and actually making an attempt, was 10 minutes or less. If people in crisis can be kept away from a means of killing themselves for even a short period of time, their risk of dying can drop dramatically.

"That's the thing about suicide, is that you can have that feeling, but if someone intervenes, you know, that feeling can easily go away," Mays says.

Firearms are a main focus of suicide prevention efforts because they are more efficiently lethal than other methods. Nine in 10 people who attempt suicide with a gun will die.

Missouri's Safer Homes Collaborative is modeled on the New Hampshire Gun Shop Project, which sought to soothe any fears about stepping on Second Amendment rights by enlisting gun owners to deliver the message, as part of a strategy called means reduction.

Proponents of means reduction say that suicides can be reduced significantly if businesses refuse to sell firearms to people who are in crisis, and if family members temporarily keep guns away from people who feel suicidal.

The Safer Homes Collaborative has managed to work with many gun businesses across the Missouri , but this message still doesn't always go over well with other gun rights advocates, and Mays' charm is sometimes put to the test. During one recent visit, a shop owner told Mays that his materials were no longer welcome.

"I went to a shop and the guy said, 'We're not doing that anymore, because we don't want that anti-gun stuff in here,'" Mays says. "I'm like, 'C'mon, are you kidding me? You know this is not no anti-gun! Would I be talking to you?'"

Mays is not easily discouraged. He knows from personal experience how even small actions can save lives.

A few years ago, Mays says he struggled with suicidal thoughts himself. He remembers one episode when he was on the verge of taking his life. But he says a phone call with his daughter pulled him out of the crisis.

When Mays signed on with the Safer Homes project in 2018, he told project director Katie Ellison he was worried about where the increase in gun ownership among Black residents would lead.

"I told her I think in the near future, suicide's gonna be big among African Americans," Mays recalls.

Gun ownership diversifies, and so do the risks

For decades, older white men have had among the highest rates of suicide, in part because of their higher rates of gun ownership. Having a gun in the home increases suicide risk for everyone who lives there by two to five times.

Since 2012, however, suicides rates among young Black men have increased by almost 50% nationally. And suicide rates for younger Black children (ages 5-12) climbed, and is now more than double the rate of younger white children.

While the overall suicide rate for white Americans — including teenagers — remains much higher than the rate among African Americans, the new trends concern Deb Azrael, associate director of the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center.

Azrael coauthored a new study estimating that from 2019 to April 2021, around 16 million Americans had guns introduced to their home for the first time. Of the new buyers, 21% were Black.

Azrael says it's time to update assumptions about who may be in danger.

"Gun ownership is more diverse now, and so when we talk to people about the risks of guns, we want to make sure we're reaching out across the board, and not just to the people we've typically thought of as gun owners in the past."

Similarly, stereotypes about who is "typically" at risk of suicide are also changing. Reba Rice-Portwood says that when she was growing up in Saint Louis in the 1970s and 80s, suicide was seen as a problem that existed outside of her own African American community.

"When someone would die by suicide, and if we heard about it on television, or we read about it or something like that, we would always assume that it was a Caucasian," says Rice-Portwood, who's now 55.

Her own thoughts about that changed abruptly and tragically a few years ago, when her son Ricky died.

Rice-Portwood says Ricky had an "old soul."

He loved Sam Cooke and looked out for older people in his apartment complex. But Reba says her son was also tormented by depression.

One day in 2014, Reba got a frantic call from her son's fiancée, who told her that Ricky had shot himself.

Ricky died at a hospital — he was only 22.

"What did I do so bad in this life for God to allow my son to pass?" Rice-Portwood asks.

Reba also strained to understand how her son, who was known to struggle with mental health, managed to get a gun, a question that remains unsolved.

And then, amidst her grief and confusion, came some surprising news: Ricky's fiancée discovered she was pregnant.

Today, Rice-Portwood is raising her grandson, Jackson, who's six years old. On a Saturday morning at her apartment, he shows off his multiplication skills on a tablet while his "granny" beams.

Reba Rice-Portwood talks to her grandson Jackson Portwood, 6, receives a haircut from barber Michael Blissitt, of St. Louis, on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021, at Elle' Inner-city Salon in St. Louis, Missouri. Rice-Portwood is raising Jackson after her son died by suicide.
/ Brian Munoz/St. Louis Public Radio
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Brian Munoz/St. Louis Public Radio
Reba Rice-Portwood talks to her grandson Jackson Portwood, 6, receives a haircut from barber Michael Blissitt, of St. Louis, on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021, at Elle' Inner-city Salon in St. Louis, Missouri. Rice-Portwood is raising Jackson after her son died by suicide.
Reba Rice-Portwood hugs her grandson Jackson Portwood, after he got a haircut from barber Michael Blissitt at Elle' Inner-city Salon in St. Louis, Missouri.
/ Brian Munoz/St. Louis Public Radio
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Brian Munoz/St. Louis Public Radio
Reba Rice-Portwood hugs her grandson Jackson Portwood, after he got a haircut from barber Michael Blissitt at Elle' Inner-city Salon in St. Louis, Missouri.

After working many years inside jails, Rice-Portwood became a mental health counselor. Nowadays she's outspoken about the need to address trauma among young African Americans in St. Louis. She grapples with how to stop the spread of gun violence, especially when the proliferation of firearms in her community seems impossible to contain.

Despite what happened to her son, Reba still keeps a .380 pistol that she's had for a long time. She stores it in a safe at home. She says she's held on to it for one big reason: fear of crime

"Actually I went to the grocery story about three weeks ago, you know, and was almost car jacked," Rice-Portwood says. "That's the reason why I still have it now, because I was like, it's just too much going on."

Guns fill a void where trust in police is low

For Bill Mays and his friends, discussions about self-defense and guns have taken on increased urgency.

At Bang Good BBQ, next door to the SharpShooter range, Bill Mays meets up with Russell and Sharis Lewis. After placing lunch orders, they launch into talking about firearms, the Kyle Rittenhouse case, and other recent incidents of violence against African Americans.

Sharis Lewis says greater St. Louis has long had strained relationships between police officers and Black residents. She sees double standards in how law enforcement is applied and justice carried out along racial lines. Those reinforce her belief that carrying a pistol has become a requirement for her personal safety.

"Me calling the police officer for help, I'm probably not going to get help," Sharis says. "I have to be able to explain that I'm the victim. And as soon as they show up to the scene, [I have to say] 'I called you. I'm the one that needs the help,' you know what I mean? So, who's going to help?"

Mays says he's felt those safety concerns too. But his work in suicide prevention, along with a renewed interest in religion, has changed his personal relationship with firearms.

"I think a lot about the Bible. And the experience with Jesus — would Jesus walk around with a firearm? Of course not," Mays says. "But it's more than that. It's just a point of – I don't want to hurt anybody. I don't want anybody to hurt me, but I just don't want to hurt anybody like that."

Mays recently stopped carrying a gun, though he continues to hunt. But he wants to keep helping the people who do carry guns, especially the newest gun owners. And he hopes that those conversations, however tough, might help prevent another suicide death in Missouri.

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3