As suicide death rates climb, Kansas City groups urge more gun safety measures

Missouri News

Handgun in a dark room lit by a single light source

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — During the pandemic, Missourians were troubled with two life-altering crises: the coronavirus and suicide.

FOX4 spoke with multiple sources who noticed an influx of people who thought about harming themselves during the pandemic, noting that isolation due to COVID-19 protocols were an aggravating factor.

The pandemic also disrupted the lives of young people everywhere, driving them into social isolation, pushing them to use more social media, and intensifying the risk of suicidal ideations for all, according to Shayla Sullivant, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.

“I can say as a psychiatrist, I’ve never in my life been contacted by so many people seeking help for their son or their daughter,” Sullivant said.

“Folks are really, appropriately, aware and concerned that their kids are struggling and trying to get them help.”


If you are thinking of harming yourself or taking your own life, you can call 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) or 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). Please get help immediately.

You Matter: Find mental health resources and stories on FOX4.


Over the past decade, the firearm suicide rate among children and teens increased by 59 percent, according to a study by Everytown for Gun Safety.

In 2020, suicide was the 10th-leading cause of death in Missouri and the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Missouri had a suicide death rate of 19.48 per 100,000 people last year, nearly a 31.3% difference than the national suicide death rate of 14.21.

Everytown for Gun Safety’s report shows the leading cause of death for children and teens is by firearms, with an average of 108 children and teens dying by guns every year, with 59% of those deaths ruled as homicides, 36.4% ruled suicides.

A rise in gun registrations while Missouri relaxes regulations

Individuals are registering for firearm background checks at a rate of 9,912.6 per 100,000 people this year, according to data published by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. This exceeds the pre-pandemic 2019 rate of about 8,641.4 background checks per 100,000 people by roughly 12.8%.

Last year, the rate of firearm background checks in Missouri reached about 11,506 background checks per 100,000 people, roughly 27% higher than the previous year’s rate of 8,456.3, according to NICS data.

Permitless carry is legal in Missouri for anyone 19 years or older who can legally possess a firearm, which means undergoing a background check for clearance. But Missouri has no law requiring background checks on unlicensed gun sales, meaning the number of guns out there likely exceeds the number of people who have registered for a background check.

“The truth is, if you’ve been around the gun world at all, everybody knows if they’re eligible [to purchase a firearm] when they walk through that front door,” Steve Brackeen, owner of Blue Steel Guns & Ammo in Raytown, said. 

Brackeen said his shop’s sales were up by about 281% between 2019 and 2020. This year, he said his business continues to do well, with sales up by nearly 71%.

He said he’s noticed more and more young people flooding into the shop, something he attributes to low public trust in the government and rampant crime in Kansas City.

“There’s no trust in the system,” Brackeen said. “They [customers] come in all the time and say, ‘Oh, just last night two guys threatened me on my front porch,’ you know, ‘I was walking in the Plaza and got robbed at gunpoint,’ and it happens every day down there.”

Researchers at the American Journal of Nursing found that suicide rates among adolescents in Missouri, which had declined between 1999 and 2009, began to rise in 2010. The rate increased rapidly from 2.63 per 100,000 adolescents in 2009 to 9.23 per 100,000 in 2018.

The study points to the repeal of Missouri’s permit-to-purchase laws in 2007, which researchers say is correlated with a 22% increase in firearm suicides. It also highlight the lowered age requirement of 23 to 21, finding a 32% increase in firearm suicides, regardless of educational level, economic status, or whether the person lived in a rural or urban area.

“You can’t change legislators’ minds, Judy Sherry, president of the Kansas City chapter of Grandparents Against Gun Violence, said. “We have to change the legislators, and as you might be able to tell from looking at me, I’m not that young. So, I may not ever see it but it’ll happen. I am convinced it’ll happen.”

In June, the state signed into law the Second Amendment Preservation Act, prohibiting “state and local cooperation with federal officials that attempt to enforce any laws, rules, orders, or actions that violate the Second Amendment rights of Missourians.”

Since then, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) says at least five state and local law enforcement agencies have withdrawn from collaborative efforts with federal agencies, even going as far as to refuse investigative support to the ATF.

Sherry said lenient legislation makes it too easy for someone to access a firearm in the first place, aside from the fact that over a third of guns sold are sold without a background check.

“Everybody wants to feel safe and you can’t feel safe if you know that 40% of the guns sold are sold without a background check, so you have no idea if this person is mentally unfit, is a domestic abuser, is a felon, has any kind of record that should preclude that person from being able to own a gun,” she said. 

She said easy access to firearms means younger people have greater access to violence, which may result in desensitization and post-traumatic stress disorders. 

This became especially evident to her after speaking with survivors and the families of victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

“One of those women had a grandson who did not get killed, but was locked in an instrument closet with a teacher for about an hour and a half,” Sherry said.

“I know because I’ve kept up with her, the post-traumatic stress that these – there’s big articles written, not enough frankly, about people who survived that day – but even those few years ago, PTSD was not something we talked about very often.”

Missouri has the fourth-highest societal cost of gun violence in the United States, according to Everytown for Gun Safety’s report, at $1,606 per person each year. In total, gun deaths and injuries cost Missouri at least $10 billion, of which $507 million is paid by taxpayers, according to its website.

Sherry said she attributes the increasing interest of firearms in younger people to a spike in suicidal ideations during the pandemic.

“Gun dealers, more and more, now, are becoming more aware of this, and are willing to work with groups like ours, and don’t want to sell a gun to anyone that’s suicidal, any more than we would want them to,” she said.

She said Grandparents Against Gun Violence is adamant about working to implement warning signs in every shop that sells firearms, cautioning people to store guns safely. 

“I’ve been at it for three years and I know it’s gonna happen,” she said, “but it takes time.”

Brackeen said he offers free lessons to anyone who is interested in purchasing a firearm, something he says no other shop in the Kansas City area provides.

“We have a firing range here,” Brackeen said. “We give any person that buys or walks in the door with their own gun, if they purchase range time, free lessons. Everybody else charges $70 an hour, [but] it’s free.”

Efforts to promote safety and avoid tragedy

Realizing many of the parents she spoke with had never learned safe firearm and medication storage techniques, Sullivant began conducting presentations geared towards teenagers and parents on how to coach family members through issues like vaping, eating disorders, home safety, substance abuse, and suicide prevention. 

She started the initiative “Prepped and Ready” to offer parents and teenagers educational video presentations that aim to prevent tragedies in the home.

“Because parents are busy and not always able to make it to a webinar (our latest format), we have created a series of brief 3-to-5 minute videos for parents to watch when they can, in under an hour,” she said in an email.

“We are researching the impact of these videos in a similar manner by asking parents to complete brief surveys, and we mail them a toolkit to help them enact changes.”

One of the many issues Sullivant addresses in her presentations then follows up with audience members to survey is gun safety. She said the toolkits include gun locks, a locked gun box, and other resources that offer parents the means to be proactive with their firearms and medications.

Launched in 2017 by Grandparents Against Gun Violence, Lock It For Love, which aims to prevent injuries and deaths from accidental shootings or suicides in Kansas City, provided free cable gun locks to distribute at Sullivant’s initial presentations.

Cable gun locks provided through Grandparents Against Gun Violence’s Lock It For Love program. (Photo handout from Kansas City’s chapter of Grandparents Against Gun Violence)

“With regards to firearm owners, of course, not everyone that participates is a firearm owner but among the firearm owners, we found that those that participated were 5.9 times more likely to store their firearms in the safest manner possible after they’ve participated,” she said.

Now, Sullivant has the funding to distribute gun locks to residents, not just within the metropolitan area, but across the state too.

“We’re not trying to get people to get rid of their guns,” she said. “We’re trying to get them to be exquisitely safe about how they store their guns so we have fewer deaths in the community.”

Though she has seen success with her presentations thus far, Sullivant said she believes diversifying Prepped and Ready’s audience to include more men, firearm owners, and people of color is essential.

“We have over 90% of folks that participate say that they strongly agree the presentation provided value for them, and that’s firearm owners and non-firearm owners alike,” she said.

“So, the part that I’m really proud of is I don’t think we’re offending firearm owners. I think they too do not want to see these preventable deaths happen.” 

Sullivant said community concerns vary on whether or not a gun lock is practical for them, so she offers alternative safety methods to those who aren’t comfortable storing their guns unloaded.

“Some community members have said they did not feel a cable gun lock would work for them, as they want to have a gun loaded for personal protection,” she said in an email.

“While we think storing a gun unloaded is always best practice, if someone is going to have a loaded gun, I have learned from the police officers that a lockbox is the next best option to use. Our goal is not to have a one-size fits all approach, but to help parents think through what option works best for them to reduce the risk that their child, or any unintended user, may access that gun.”  

She said suicide is a preventable cause of death, and more should be done to shed light on tangible solutions that can make a difference.

“Research prior to ours has shown that education is helpful, but giving people education plus the tools often leads to bigger changes,” she said in an email.

Free gun locks are distributed at most police departments, as well as at Children’s Mercy hospital in Kansas City.

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