This gun store owner has a radical plan for preventing suicides by gun.

Ralph Demicco was sitting in his sporting goods shop one Saturday morning when he noticed a customer who was acting slightly ... off.

She was conspicuously overdressed and refused to make eye contact when she came up to the counter and asked to look at a pistol.

Demicco asked the woman if she should really be buying a gun — and she immediately broke down crying. He told WBUR that he brought her into the back room of the store, where she confided that she was planning to kill herself. He let her stay there and collect herself while he reached out to her doctor.


Demicco may have saved a life that day. But he has good reason to be so careful.

Note: not actually Ralph Demicco. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

During one week in 2009, three different people bought guns at different times from Demicco's store.

Each of them used the gun they'd bought to take their own life later that same day.

"Apparently our marginal screening process did not pick up on any of these individuals," Demicco told The Trace in 2016. Unfortunately, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System only flags people who've been committed to a mental institution against their own will.

So, technically speaking, the employees at the store did everything they were supposed to. But according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, guns are responsible for nearly half of the more than 40,000 suicides each year, and suicide accounted for almost two-thirds of the total gun deaths in the country — meaning it's an even bigger problem than the homicides and mass shootings people tend to hear about.

Photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images.

In 2011, Demicco decided to do something about this.

He teamed up with public health professionals and local firearm dealers to establish the New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition, taking an active role in preventing suicides.

It began with a simple plan to reach out to all 67 gun shops in New Hampshire — first to start a conversation, then to see if they'd be willing to display posters or pamphlets in their store to raise awareness about suicide. The NHFSC also provides training to firearms dealers to help them spot warning signs in customers.

Within a year, half of the firearm retailers in the state were on board with the cause.

One of the posters, which includes a list of warning signs to look out for.

"We’re learning about warning signs and spreading an additional message of gun safety to our customers," Demicco said in a press release.

"If you’re worried someone is suicidal, offer to hold on to their guns until they are in a better place."

"It's not that gun owners are more likely to be suicidal or depressed," coalition co-chair Elaine Frank added in an interview with USA Today. "It's that guns are the most lethal way for someone to take their own life."

She's right: Most suicides are fairly impulsive, and 70% of people who survive an attempt won't try again. Unfortunately, only about 10% of people survive a suicide attempt by gun. Which makes gun intervention that much more important.

Another NHFSC pamphlet, which aims to normalize the additional gun safety rule of "consider temporary off-site storage if a family member may be suicidal."

While New Hampshire may have been the first state to launch this kind of program, the idea is starting to make its way around the country.

And the results are looking pretty good.

A new law passed in Washington state in March 2016 with the support of both the NRA and the Second Amendment Foundation. The law will increase training and messaging about suicide prevention among gun dealers and other firearm professionals, as well as in all gun sport safety materials.

Even more recently, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention teamed up with the National Shooting Sports Foundation to research, create, and implement a plan that reduces suicide rates 20% by 2025.

The official AFSP infographic for Project 2025.

Overall, more than two dozen states have launched programs similar to the one in New Hampshire in the last five years.

According to the Trace, this includes famously pro-gun states with higher suicide rates like Alabama, New Mexico, Kentucky, and Colorado.

There has been some resistance, of course.

"I think there’s a fear among some stores — it’s been expressed vehemently — that it’s just another backdoor attempt at grabbing guns," said one New Hampshire firearm dealer. "You gotta convince people that this isn’t about gun control, it’s suicide control."

Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images.

Mental health and gun deaths are both complicated issues.

There's no one-size-fits-all-solution to either one, of course, but it's encouraging that people are working toward systemic solutions.

Perhaps the most inspiring thing about these kinds of programs is the way they bring people together from all across the spectrum.

As one Harvard researcher who was following the New Hampshire coalition told U.S. News & World Report: "The suicide prevention people were largely not gun owners. The gun owners on that committee didn’t have a background on mental health or suicide issues. We learned so much from each other."

When it comes to saving lives, actions speak much louder than words. And as these initiatives prove, that's something everyone can agree on.

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Today, I'm a 35-year-old man with a flame shaved into my beard. If the '80s movies I love so much are any indication, this is a sure sign I'm going through some kind of existential crisis. Next week, when the semester starts and I begin teaching again, it will not be strange if my colleagues start to worry about me just a little. A sports car or a neck-jerking pivot to physical fitness — that's an understandable response to the realization that life is fleeting. But a large meticulous flame carved out of facial hair? What does one do with that?

At this moment, though, I'm showing my face proudly to a woman wearing a swimsuit with a taco cat on it. We have only recently met, but she's telling me that she's so into my "fade" that she wants to kiss it. Then she does, blowing a raspberry into my cheek so hard that her hat falls off. Neither of us can stop laughing.

"Live Mas!" she yells with the excitement of someone who's never had trouble fully seizing the moment.

"Live Mas!" I shout back without any irony. There is no irony here in Palm Springs, where, for four days only, hundreds of people celebrate their love for Taco Bell.

Here, there's only swimming and hot sauce-themed leisure wear, and the warm pleasant feeling that comes from eating too much and knowing that you're with your own people. Even if the only thing that connects you is a love for a fast food giant that feeds you when you're hammered and shameless at 2 a.m.

We drank the Baja Blast! My Taco Bell fade and my friend's specialty manicure!Mark Shrayber

What does it mean to Live Mas? This is a question I am forced to ask myself over and over during my 24-hour stay at "The Bell," where I have stowed away as a friend's plus-one. We are, of course, both politely pretending that I'm a full-on guest with all the perks that entails, but we also both know that I wouldn't be here eating unlimited quesadillas poolside without her.

So maybe that's the first thing Live Mas means: To build strong lifelong connections which you can, with some luck, exploit to your benefit. :) :) :)

But this is too cynical an interpretation, because everyone here is so happy. Happy that they've gotten a reservation; happy that they can cool off in a room themed after an iconic Mountain Dew Drink, and happy that they can share their own personal story of what Taco Bell means to them. (Though there's no formal essay contest — I've checked.)

Me: This room won't be that cool. Also me: OH MY GOD, THIS IS THE COOLEST ROOM I'VE EVER BEEN IN!!!Mark Shrayber

Snatches of this story float around the "Fire" pool, where all the entertainment is concentrated: One couple canceled their trip to Prague because "Prague will always be there" — a brave stance considering climate change; another met last year on Tinder after the girlfriend's Taco Bell senior photos went viral; at the opening ceremony on Thursday, where sauce packets were cut instead of a ribbon, a city official brought others to tears with both her Taco Bell fashion and a memory of how her parents would feed an entire family with 19-cent-tacos from the first-ever Taco Bell in Downey, California.

Oh, I forgot one: The guy who skipped out on Prague? He got a giant bell shaved into the side of his head, so he might have to miss out on a black-tie event happening later this week. But it's all good. Bring on the nacho fries.

I make fast friends with four women who are here for a bachelorette party, the bride overwhelmed with good vibes and prosecco. This year, for her 30th, she rented a party bus. Inside? $100 worth of Taco Bell that her fiancee was worried might not be consumed.

"But little did he know," she shouts in the hot tub where we're "cooling off" after a long day of 108-degree sunning, "we ate it all!"

A bachelorette party and a birthday! We're really living it up (but also staying hydrated.)Mark Shrayber

Others whoop it up at the twist, but we all get it. Though there's no essay contest, I don't mind telling you that when my first boyfriend dumped me 14 years ago, I stuffed my face with chalupas. When I lost a job I really loved four years ago, I once ordered so much Taco Bell that the delivery app of my choice informed me I'd exceeded the maximum number of items they could comfortably fill in one order. We get it — though none of us can truly explain it.

There are, if you look at the The Bell from a literary perspective, many other writers who deserve this experience more than me. They could talk about the blue of the pool. Or the insouciance of youth. Draw parallels between marketing stunts such as this and the end-stage capitalism. Or envision a "Demolition Man" future where Taco Bell is fine dining and none of us know how to use the three shells in the bathroom to get ourselves clean.

And I wish these writers could be here to paint you these landscapes, but what you've got is me, a literal Taco Bell super-fan, and what I'm doing is eating and getting sunburned and taking a synchronized swimming class with the Aqualillies, who refer to themselves as "the world's most glamorous water ballet entertainment," but have very little idea of what to do with 10 eager recruits who can't stay afloat or on beat.


G-L-A-M-O-R-O-U-S!!Photo courtesy of Taco Bell.

"It's okay," one of the instructors comforts me just before the Tacolilies (the name of our "team") are invited to perform our watery version of "Senorita" — which was supposed to be two minutes long, then 1:15, and has now been judiciously cut down, due to talent, to about 45 seconds — in the bigger pool. "We regularly teach five-year-olds. And you're doing much better."

Usually, I would take offense at such blatant reads, but today I'm unbothered. I'll continue to be so right until I get home and discover that I've left all my electronics on United Flight 5223 (if anyone wants to get them back to me). And even then, I rage at myself for all of five seconds before checking that I've still got what's important: A certificate that says I did not drown while doing water ballet.

It's still there. As is my phone, which is blowing up with messages from people who took pictures of me in what Taco Bell calls its "power suit," and which is best described as "cult outfit, but kinda make it fashion." I bought my husband one, too, and I look forward to the argument we're going to have about holiday cards later.

This is "Live Mas."

I've never been so happy to match with someone else in my life. MaMark Shrayber

Or maybe it's the moment another stranger tells me that we'll be friends forever. Such friendships are forged quickly when you've got less than 24 hours to make lifelong connections and I'm pleased to get the full experience.

"We may never meet again," he says while we're swimming, "but we'll always have this time together."

Then we establish that he lives just across the park from me in San Francisco.

"Aw, man," he says, floating away to take pictures of the people he came with, "I've got lots of close friends I never see because they live across that damn park."

But the sentiment holds.

We Live Mas it on.

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