Three attempted suicides in recent weeks at Florida shooting ranges where customers can rent guns has left the owners of the ranges shaken and worrying that there is little they can do to protect customers from taking their own lives.
"It bothers me to hear about instances of suicide," said John Harvey, the owner of the Oak Ridge Gun Range in Orlando, Fla. "It really makes you sick."
"It makes you wonder if there's anything else you can do, but there isn't," said Harvey. "We discuss it all the time. It depresses everyone."
While background checks are required by federal law for individuals purchasing guns, no such law exists for gun rentals.
"It's difficult to screen. People will sign a complete waiver that they're okay, they're not going to hurt themselves and then boom," said Harvey.
Harvey said that in his 22 years in the business, his own range has seen three attempted suicides and two that were successful. The last suicide was more than 10 years ago, he said.
But instances of suicide are not uncommon in the area, said Harvey, who said other gun range owners are struggling with the reality that their businesses could be providing individuals an easy way to take their own lives.
There are no official statistics that track the number of suicides at shooting ranges each year, but so far this year there have been several highly publicized gun range deaths.
On June 13, a woman rented a gun from East Orange Shooting Sports in central Florida and shot herself in the head. She survived the attempt and her condition is unclear. A lawyer for the range said that it would no longer be renting guns until it was able to run background checks on customers.
At the same range on April 27, a 26-year-old man committed suicide, and on April 5 a mother killed her 20-year-old son and then herself at Shoot Straight range in Casselberry, Fla.
Gun Range Owners Find it Hard to Screen Renters
Jon Gutmacher, an Orlando attorney and the author of "Florida Firearms – Law, Use and Ownership," said that as long as gun range owners are not able to do background checks on customers, suicides at the ranges aren't likely to stop happening.
"The gun ranges are plum out of luck," said Gutmacher. "There's not a thing in the world that ranges are going to be able to do to help the situation."
According to Gutmacher, range owners are prohibited by law from getting background checks on customers renting guns because of privacy issues and the history of abuse of the system.
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Violence, said that even background checks aren't fool proof, and that the percentage of states that file the proper paperwork to report mental health issues that would deem someone unable to be a gun owner is low.
"But at least there is a process to stop dangerous people from getting the guns," said Helmke.
"If you can go to the gun range and not have that added barrier, we're making this very, very easy for dangerous people to get access," he said. "We have to wonder if we're enabling more suicidal people by letting guns be available to anyone in a gun range."
For gun range owners, this means the only line of defense against suicidal customers is taking the person's word when they say they are not mentally ill or intent on killing themselves.
"Other than ask and hope people are telling the truth, gun ranges can't do much else [to prevent suicides]," said Gutmacher.
Gutmacher said that he tells his clients to ask as many questions as possible about a customer's mental health, including whether they are currently taking anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications as well as whether they have had any suicidal thoughts in the past two years.
But even Gutmacher said that his own advice is unlikely to stop suicidal customers from renting guns.
"As long as you're not a convicted felon you can go into a gun range and rent a gun," said Gutmacher.
"If someone wants to commit suicide he's going to lie. Those questions aren't going to stop them," he said.
Harvey said that at his own range, he and his employees always ask about a customer's mental state, even though "they don't have to."
We can't even do a background check unless they're purchasing. You can't do a real mental check," said Harvey. "That's frustrating."
Asked whether he has ever turned prospective gun renters away, Harvey said that he has, but it's the rare exception.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time we don't have to," he said. "Occasionally there is someone who just seems a little strange."
"I guess my employees need to be psychiatrists soon too," said Harvey.