When Caleb Morse got a call from his Army buddy he served with in Iraq announcing he was in Louisiana, he had a feeling something was wrong.
He couldn’t understand why his buddy, who lived in Colorado Springs, had suddenly shown up in the South. Morse says he told him, “Man, like, I love having you here. And my wife and kids love seeing you and everything else. And you’re great to be around, but you would never move to Louisiana.”
A few days later his friend showed up at Rustic Renegade, a gun shop and shooting range that Morse, 39, had opened in Lafayette, Louisiana, about a year earlier in 2018 after leaving the military where he served in the combat unit 2nd Infantry Division Special Troops Battalion. His friend arrived with his car and his dog. He opened the trunk and started to unload his car, Morse recalled. He started to bring all these guns inside the shop, Morse said,” And I’m like, brother, what are you doing?”
Morse knew from his time in the military that often when people start giving away their things they can be considering suicide.
He knew his friend was in a bad spot so Morse asked him to sit, but “I grabbed two cups of coffee and when I came back he was gone.”
He didn’t answer Morse’s calls — “he had left cold, he didn’t answer his phone” — but Morse still had his firearms. He decided to hold them at Rustic Renegade in case his friend ever came back.
Six months passed. Finally, his friend called and explained he had been in a bad spot and wondered where his guns were. Morse said he told him, “They’re your guns, man. They’re yours, you may want them back. And whenever you’re ready, they’re here for you.”
More than half of all gun-related deaths in the United States are suicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In 2022, the CDC reported that 26,993 people died by firearm suicide. Deaths by gun suicide are at an all-time high and have steadily increased, nearly uninterrupted, since 2006 according to researchers at John Hopkins School of Public Health.
In the veteran population the problem is acute; in its 2022 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Report, the Department of Veterans Affairs found that the suicide rate in 2020 was 57.3 % greater for veterans.
Guns are more commonly involved among veteran suicides, at 71%, than the rest of the population, at 50.3%, according to the CDC.
Somehow, another veteran a short time later came into Morse’s shop and told Morse he, too, was in a bad spot. The veteran asked Morse to hold his guns at Rustic Renegade. Morse decided to set up a system that logged the guns into the store’s books and gave the veteran a receipt and told him to pick up his firearms when he felt better. Morse said he thought nothing of it. Other veterans dropped off guns “about a dozen times,” in just over a year he said, when he got a call from Gala True.
True, an associate professor at Louisiana State University School of Medicine who researches community-engaged efforts to prevent veteran suicides, met Morse in 2021. She was coordinating with firearms retailers interested in providing options for those in crisis who wanted to store firearms outside their homes.
“We try to create time and distance between a person having a mental health crisis and a loaded firearm,” True said. The Armory Project was launched in Louisiana in 2021 with three retailers interested in providing storage. Through a Veterans Administration grant, True and her team provided infrastructure and resources to the firearms retailers to build networks and partnerships.
Louisiana joined nine other states including Colorado, New Jersey, Mississippi, Maryland and Washington in the growing number of communities that have developed temporary storage off-site for firearms. In 2018, Colorado built its first statewide map showing storage or places considering storage. Other states have followed by building detailed online maps that show retailers that can temporarily hold firearms. The Biden Administration has supported off-site storage for suicide prevention.
Suicide prevention experts know people in crisis who don’t have easy access to a gun will not likely find another way to kill themselves. Suicide prevention expert Mike Anestis, Executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center and a professor at Rutgers University, said no other methods are as “close to as lethal as firearms for a suicide death.” Around 90 to 95% of suicide attempts with a firearm will result in death while less than 5% of all other attempts will result in death, he said.
In a country that already has an estimated 400 million guns in circulation the solution just can’t be about banning firearms or stopping people from buying them, said Anestis.
Anestis said outside storage is a public health approach similar to approaches with issues like drunk driving is to “take the keys” – and limit access.
“We’ve learned the best way to prevent the outcome that you’re trying to avoid, is to limit the individual’s access to the method that can cause that outcome,” said Anestis.
Gun owners have to be able to make decisions that allow them to retain control over their autonomy, as well as fits their values, said Anestis. Outside storage can be a legal — and truly effective — way to prevent injury and death, he said. Temporary storage also serves as a solution for firearm owners who might not want a gun in their home for various reasons, such as a grandchild visiting or if a teen or other family member inside the home is struggling.
True and Morse both say for these programs to succeed, gun shops need to be able to participate – so gun owners can feel they have a safe place to store their firearms. Gun owners generally can’t just hand over their firearms to anybody they want. Federal law doesn’t prohibit people from storing guns for each other on a personal basis, but each state has various regulations saying who can hold onto a gun and who is liable.
Some states, such as Washington and Vermont, allow immediate or extended family members to hold onto guns if a family member is in crisis. But other states, such as New York or Massachusetts, prohibit the transfer of any firearms. And since states have such a patchwork of laws, researchers – and firearms shops – feel those shops can be the best repository for outside storage. But the businesses need to be protected, said True. She said one of the main questions firearm shop owners asked when the Armory Project launched was “If a person goes on to harm themselves, can the firearm retailer be sued and lose their business?”
Morse said when he first decided to start his program, he contacted a lawyer, who said, “No, no, you’re opening yourself to a ton of liability. What if you give them their firearm back and they kill themselves?”
Morse said he was going to store the guns anyway. He answered the lawyer: “I just want to give them a pause —that moment in time where they say, ‘Look, someone cares, maybe life isn’t so bad.'”
In Louisiana, the coalition worked to pass legislation that said gun shop owners wouldn’t be liable. The legislation passed “easily” with “very little concern,” said True. Coalitions in Texas and Oregon are trying to pass similar laws, she said.
In July 2023 the ATF issued an open letter to FFL and gun shops clarifying how to legally and safely store firearms for individuals.
One option is providing gun storage lockers at the gun shop that an individual can open and put their firearms inside. “In this situation, an FFL does not”receive “or “acquire ” the firearm into its inventory, nor does the FFL assume control of the individual’s firearm,” the letter said, which can reduce liability for gun shops that want to provide outside storage for others.
Morse said after two combat tours in Iraq, serving in the National Guard, and then working as a military contractor in Iraq for four years, essentially “running from my problems,” he fell into a depression returning home to Louisiana. Like many other soldiers, he struggled upon entering a society that often doesn’t understand military that served in combat. He said he survived due to the support of his wife, who is his high-school sweetheart, and his two children.
He said, “I know what it’s like to have that dark place. I know what it’s like to have that weight on your shoulders where you feel like you know what, I suck. You know, I failed.”
Since that first time, Morse says he’s stored about 100 firearms, if not more, for veterans who are thinking of hurting themselves or others, and installed outside storage lockers in his shop.
“And it’s been a blessing,” he said. “It’s been a big blessing to help people.”