On the last two Mondays in January, Stock and Barrel Gun Club, a firearms sports club and firing range with locations in Chanhassen and Eagan, hosted a pair of Mental Wellness Nights. At the events, attendees learned about mental health and participated in a “Question Persuade Refer” (QPR) training course designed to help participants recognize the warning signs of suicide and how to help someone get life-saving assistance.
Stock and Barrel clubs are intentionally designed to be open and airy, with gathering spaces that feel almost like community centers or country clubs, explained President Kevin Vick. It’s a different kind of gun club: “We have a very welcoming environment. We have one of the cleanest ranges in the area. We want people to come, relax and enjoy themselves. We work with first-time as well as very experienced gun owners.”
When Vick and his colleagues heard about QPR trainings offered by the LIVIN Foundation, a suicide-prevention and awareness nonprofit created by country radio personality Paul “PT” Hohag in response to his father’s 2013 death by suicide, they decided to plan an event at their clubs.
“We saw an opportunity to be able to give back to the community by holding this event at each of our locations,” Vick said. In recent years, he’s noticed that people in his social circles seem to be under more stress than ever. And reports of rising suicide rates among veterans, first responders and police officers, many of whom are members of his club, felt particularly troubling. Research backs up Vick’s concern: A 2020 Stanford University study concluded that ready access to a gun is a major risk factor for suicide.
“Mental health is a huge issue,” Vick said. “A lot of people have been under a tremendous amount of stress, particularly over the last couple of years. We see these events as very important ways to be able to get the word out that there is help out there.”
Hohag said he first learned about Stock and Barrel when he was asked to endorse the clubs on his radio show. He researched the business before agreeing to the promotional relationship, and he was impressed with the club’s stated commitment to firearm safety.
“When I heard about their mantra being ‘safety, education and training,’” Hohag said, “I was very happy to endorse them.”
Hohag explained that the evening events started with food and a “meet-and-greet,” where participants and trainers got to know each other. Then he shared the story about the loss of his father, his resulting mental health struggles and the creation of the LIVIN Foundation. The events wrapped up with a QPR training led by trainer Josh Jensen.
Hohag said QPR focuses on practical and proven solutions for preventing suicide. The training sessions use an accredited suicide prevention model, and are designed to appeal to groups in comfortable settings.
QPR’s accessible approach makes it feel less intimidating for participants, Vick added: “You do QPR training the same way you do CPR training. It’s an approach that most people are familiar with. That’s really important.”
Normalizing the conversation
Creating familiar, unintimidating opportunities for people to talk about difficult subjects like mental illness and suicide is key to reaching audiences that otherwise might not be interested in these kinds of conversations, Hohag said.
Hohag’s father, Thomas, was a rugged military veteran, a gun owner who kept his mental health struggles to himself. Hohag said that many of Stock and Barrel’s members remind him of his dad — and that makes holding these kind of conversations in a place where they feel comfortable particularly important.
“I wish my father’s friends that were in the gun club community had been more aware of what my dad might have been going through,” he said. “When I finally got trained in QPR, I realized that this is something that could be really helpful for people like them.”
Vick said he believes that starting conversations about mental health and suicide is essential. Though some people prefer to avoid these conversations, he believes that slowly more and more are becoming open to them. Events like these are a good way to make the discussion easier for everyone.
“Especially for us stoic Scandinavians,” Vick said, “talking about mental health has not been something that’s been openly discussed. I like to see that that’s changing. People are becoming more comfortable being vulnerable and seeking help.”
Vick said as far as he’s aware, Stock and Barrel is ahead of other area gun clubs in their willingness to talk about mental illness and suicide. But he hopes that trend will change over time, and that more and more people will start to see these conversations as part of normal life — just like talking about the weather.
“We don’t think of what we’re doing with these trainings as something unique,” he said. “Mental health is a serious issue. This goes well beyond just firearms. We’re talking about mental health in general and we want as many people as possible to join this discussion.”
Sparking discussion around mental health and suicide is central to the LIVIN Foundation’s mission, Hohag said. Even if the trainings only attract a small number of participants, he hopes their message will spread organically through the community.
“Hopefully,” he said, participants will, “come out of the training with at least an understanding of some flags or warning signs of someone who may be in a tough spot and some resources to put them in touch with someone who could help.”
‘Ultimately, lives will be saved’
About a year ago, SAVE, a Twin Cities-based suicide prevention nonprofit was running a comprehensive, community-based suicide-awareness program in Dakota County funded by the Minnesota Department of Health. As part of the program, SAVE partnered with Stock and Barrel to plan a community forum on mental health and suicide.
Dan Reidenberg, SAVE executive director, said that the program’s goal was to reach individuals at elevated risk of suicide who don’t always have an opportunity to learn more about mental health.
“One of the priority areas was gun clubs and those in law enforcement,” he said. He explained that SAVE organized a forum with Stock and Barrel that included a suicide prevention training led by Holly Wilcox, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Reidenberg said gun club members were appreciative — and that funders were excited that the club hosted a suicide awareness training as well.
While having this kind of event hosted by a gun club could be seen in some circles as controversial, Reidenberg said that the collaborative approach of Stock and Barrel’s staff made the whole experience feel natural: “We worked with them to promote it and learn in a way that this isn’t about gun restriction. It is about the importance of understanding the connection between firearms and suicide.”
This approach is innovative and important, Reidenberg said, “given that 51% to 52 % of suicides are by firearms.”
Normalizing these conversations is key, Reidenberg believes, because they continue the process of reducing discrimination around mental illness and suicide. “When you have a gun club like Stock and Barrel that’s willing to take this on and promote it, over time it will grow,” he said. “Other people will follow, and ultimately lives will be saved.”
Vick said that Stock and Barrel’s members are, “regular people who go to movies, who go to restaurants, who go rollerblading. Shooting is another hobby, another destination for them. We want our clubs to feel like an excellent place that is focused on safety and education.” The clubs’ offerings around mental health and suicide feels like a natural extension of that commitment, he added.
For Hohag and LIVIN, the event is a new experience. “It is probably the first time the LIVIN Foundation has done any work with a gun club,” he said. But he has no problem hosting an event at Stock and Barrel: “Part of what LIVIN has always tried to do is go anywhere were our message is can be heard. Ultimately, our goal is suicide prevention. We try to be as innovative as possible in terms of how we reach people.”