Whitney/Strong Prioritizing a Reduction in Suicide Gun Deaths

Our mission statement is quite simple-- Realize fewer lives lost to gun violence by advocating for and executing responsible gun ownership. If you are serious about reducing gun deaths, you have to get serious about suicide prevention as suicides account for more than half of our country’s gun deaths.

Did you know that firearm suicide rates are at a twenty-year high? From 10.5 deaths per 100,000 in 1994 to 13 per 100,000 in 2014 according to the CDC.

Or that firearms are the most lethal method by which people attempt suicide? 85% of suicide attempts with a firearm end in death. *

Or that suicidal deliberation occurs in 1 hour or less 71% of the time? Suicidal deliberation is the amount of time that passes between the time someone decides to complete suicide and when they actually attempt suicide. *

Or that nine out of ten people who attempt suicide and survive will not go on to die by suicide later?

* https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/means-matter/

All of this is to say that when it comes to suicide reduction- means matters. Harvard Public School of Health studies indicate that when lethal means are made less available or less deadly, suicide by that method declines.

Early on, our team became interested in two suicide prevention programs that originated out of New Hampshire: The Gun Shop Project and Counseling Against Lethal Means (CALM).

The first – Gun Shop Project – has a compelling backstory that is worth sharing.

In 2009, three different people purchased a firearm from Ralph Demicco’s gun shop, Riley’s Sport Shop in New Hampshire, and used them to commit suicide within the same five-day period. In that same year, Demicco partnered with Elaine Frank, co-chair of the New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition, to start the Gun Shop Project. Per Frank, the project is a campaign to prevent gun suicides and has two primary goals:

  1. “Engage gun shop owners in adding suicide prevention to the things that they screen for on a regular basis when making a sale – to try and prevent selling a gun to someone who is actively suicidal.”

  2. “Utilize gun shops as a place to educate customers on the tie in between suicide and firearms, and to try and engage them in holding on to guns when someone they are close to is at risk for suicide.”

“The common ground is that everybody – regardless of whether they’re pro-gun – virtually everybody is anti-suicide,” said Elaine Frank

Whitney/Strong will partner with Elaine and gun shop owners throughout KY and OH to promote this important program.

The second program, CALM, also originated out of New Hampshire and was developed by Elaine Frank and Mark Ciocca.

CALM training, available in-person or online, is focused on how to reduce access to the methods people use to kill themselves. It covers how to (1) identify people who could benefit from lethal means counseling, (2) ask about their access to lethal methods, and (3) work with them – and their families – to reduce access.

The training is beneficial to any provider who interacts with individuals at risk for suicide. However, Whitney/Strong will focus on implementation within the medical communities of KY and OH.

If you believe you can assist us with standing up either program, please reach out through whitneystrongorganization@gmail.com. Additionally, please show support financially by donating here: https://www.whitneystrong.org/checkout/donate?donatePageId=5ba826bae4966bf0ebf267de.

It's Finally Happening

It’s finally happening! After six months of researching, brainstorming, and meetings, we are ready to announce our three strategic priorities for the remainder of 2019 and into 2020! The stats we’ve shared in the last week are not headed in the right direction and it’s time for us to act. Please stay plugged into Whitney/Strong via social media to follow along.

We have been very purposeful in our selections. As a team of volunteers, we forced ourselves to narrow in on three highly impactful solutions that are, of course, supported by the majority.

Now, we won’t get into solutions today, but I would like to touch on our guiding principles. While our priorities and solutions may change from year to year, these five principles will remain our stagnant North Star.

Partnership: Bipartisan action is the only path to real change.

What does this mean to me? We need both sides of the aisle to effect change.

Incremental Wins: With stalemates all too common, we will not let perfect prevent good.

What does this mean to me? No one solution will solve the problem. Let’s chip away at this day-by-day, year-by-year, recognizing the value of small and smart wins.

Equality: All lives lost to gun violence are valuable.

What does this mean to me? We need to care about all communities impacted by gun violence, not just a subset.

Compassion: We will shine a light on the deficiencies of our mental health infrastructure and meet mental illness with kindness.

What does this mean to me? Gun violence is not just a mental health issue. But when mental illness does lead to gun violence, we must seek out solutions to support this community and not stigmatize it.

Information: Data sources from thorough and unbiased research will guide our decisions.

What does this mean to me? I’m a banker. I don’t get behind projects unless the numbers make sense. There is no reason to change my behavior now.

All of this boils down to the Whitney/Strong mission: Realize fewer lives lost to gun violence by advocating for and executing responsible gun ownership.

What does this mean to me? Whitney/Strong doesn’t want guns eradicated from the U.S. However, owners of firearms (many of us on the board included) must be expected to meet certain responsibility thresholds. In the same way we expect our 16 year-olds to reach certain responsibility thresholds prior to driving independently, we must expect the same for firearm owners.

I look forward to sharing more in coming weeks!

Whitney

D.C. and the Whitney/Strong Approach

While I consider myself a true independent politically-speaking, I’ve always had an interest in politics and the way in which our government operates. So as you can imagine, I spent the entire trip walking around on cloud nine. The energy, the gravity... I really feel drawn to that city.

But this visit wasn’t meant to satiate my political appetite, it was 100% focused on establishing partnerships with legislators who hold the power on the issue of gun violence.

I understand that not everyone can throw their political persuasions to the wind and hunker down on just one issue. We live in difficult times and everyone should be politically active on the issues that matter to them most. But for me, it is so much simpler. I almost died on 9/6. Many others have died before me and since, as a result of gun violence. My life’s mission is to solve this issue and as a mother of young children, this is all I have the energy to tackle.

I continue to be grateful for this bubble period where I can concentrate on healing and deeply immerse myself in the information necessary to succeed with Whitney/Strong. While not all of our solutions involve legislation, it will always be a part of our efforts. And in order to pass legislation, you need votes - at the Federal and State level.

As a Kentucky resident, an Ohio employee, and a U.S. citizen, I am not going to make progress by partnering with Democrats only. This strategy doesn’t work. Gun deaths have been rising for years and the House just had their first hearing on gun violence in over eight years. Sure, individual states with a Democratic majority have made progress but that makeup doesn’t apply to KY or OH. And furthermore, do you really get the best solutions when you surround yourself with like-minded thinkers?

If we are going to tackle gun violence for the long-haul, we need diverse thought and we need Republicans. Whitney/Strong believes the only path to real change is through bipartisan action. This means I may end up in a meeting with your political nemesis. Luckily for you, I’ve spared you the interaction and no political bias will ever supersede my desire to save lives.

So what did we learn? A ton! I truly believe that both parties are authentic when they say, “We want all of this to stop. We just believe in different solutions.”

This is where we come in. We serve as that squeaky wheel to Republican leaders on those solutions that we can get behind... solutions like red flag law, laws that demand prohibited persons don’t gain access to firearms, and laws that help provide support for the mentally ill in our communities.

I do not care who gets credit for these solutions. I just want lives to be saved. It’s really simple for me, but maybe that clarity can only come with a story like mine.

Special thanks to the offices of Representative Yarmuth, Representative Hollingsworth, Representative Crow, Senate Majority Leader McConnell, Senator Cornyn, Senator Graham, and Senator Paul. I’ll never forget this experience and I can’t wait to build upon the partnerships formed.

Whitney

Why Should You Support Red Flag Law?

To start, know that Red Flag Law is also referred to as gun violence restraining orders or in the case of our bill, SB 244 Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs).

Red flag laws are hot right now. 14 states have red flag (each a little different due to each state’s unique needs) and of those 14, a majority passed in 2018 in the wake of Parkland. Because the law is hot, it has become a magnet for media-attention and I’ve seen a multitude of articles and interviews filled with misinformation. Let me try to cut through some of that for you.

But first…

Whitney/Strong will only champion gun violence prevention solutions if they meet two requirements: 1) they are supported by the majority and 2) data exists that proves the solution will be impactful.

Red flag fits both requirements and as such, it is the first solution we are ready to aggressively champion!

Majority Supported

1)     In response to Parkland, President Trump called on all states to adopt ERPOs and directed the Department of Justice to provide technical assistance to states that want to implement the orders. The President reiterated this stance on the one-year anniversary of Parkland (February 14, 2019).

2)     On January 3, 2019, U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), Jack Reed (D-RI), Angus King (I-ME), and Susan Collins (R-ME) re-introduced the bipartisan ERPO and Violence Prevention Act, which will dedicate Department of Justice funds to incentivize states to give law enforcement the authority to prevent individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others the ability to purchase or possess firearms, while still providing due process protections.

3)     Per a 2018 New England Journal of Medicine article, 78.9% of Americans support ERPOs, with differences between firearm owners and non-owners of just 5.3 percentage points.

4)     The Federal Commission for School Safety Final Report (a group orchestrated by President Trump after Parkland) recommended ERPOs in December 2018. The report cites ERPO as a stop gap for reporting individuals who show warning signs of potential violence. To read the full recommendation, read pages 91-96 here: School Safety Report.

Evidence of Impact

1)     Suicide Prevention – Per the School Safety Final Report, a recent study looked at both the Connecticut and Indiana laws. It found that Indiana’s law was associated with a 7.5 percent decrease in firearm suicides during the 10 years following its enactment. Connecticut’s law was associated with a 13.7 percent decrease between 2007 and 2015.

2)     On April 12, 2018 the day after Vermont enacted this lifesaving policy, Vermont law enforcement obtained a gun violence restraining order against an 18-year old who had planned a mass shooting at a high school. The would-be murderer kept a diary called “Journal of an Active Shooter,” in which he detailed his plans to cause more casualties than any previous school shooting.

3)     Per U.S. News and World Report, Montgomery County Sheriff Darren Popkin out of Maryland, said of more than 300 protective orders in the first three months since the law took effect, five of them were school-related threats and four of those were “significant threats.”

Back to the misinformation... let me give you facts to help combat it.

What is the problem?

Whether through acquiring illegally or legally, dangerous individuals gain access to firearms. Furthermore, dangerous individuals use those firearms to commit violent acts on themselves or others. Red flag laws allow family or household members, in addition to law-enforcement officers, to petition the court to keep firearms away from a dangerous person in the throes of a crisis.

How does it work?

While the law varies amongst the 14 states with Red Flag in place, in Kentucky we propose the family or household member (or law enforcement or qualified mental health professional) present evidence to a judge supporting his/her claims regarding the dangerous person. If the evidence is convincing and the risk is great, the firearm(s) must be surrendered temporarily and in a timely manner. The respondent, the individual who has surrendered his/her firearm, is then provided within 14 days due process protections via a hearing with a judge (jury may be requested). The respondent may provide evidence in favor of retaining access to his/her firearm.

The final decision is made by a judge (or jury upon request). If the judge or jury determines the respondent is unable to retain his/her firearm, the firearm is stored securely for a period of time (current KY bill is considering one year).

Due Process Concerns Addressed

1.     Petitioner Scope should be limited. Done – Only law enforcement, qualified medical health professionals, and family or household members can petition a court for removal of a firearm. Those closest to the dangerous individual should only be allowed to petition.

2.     Criminal penalties for those who bring false or frivolous charges. Done – In our proposed bill, this individual is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.

3.     High Burden of Proof. Done – Clear and Convincing Evidence is required at the evidentiary hearing on day 14 to continue to retain the firearm for a period of one year.

4.     A jury would provide the opportunity to eliminate judge bias. Done – a respondent can request a jury for determining the outcome of the evidentiary hearing.

See, it is possible to simultaneously protect citizens from gun violence and respect their second amendment and due process rights.

I’d like to personally thank Morgan McGarvey, my State Senator, for submitting SB 244. Morgan and I have worked closely to gather feedback and tweak this bill to address concerns from both sides of the aisle.

We have an uphill battle with this law and we need your help!

Step One: Please find your Legislators by clicking here.

Step Two: Call your Legislators and say, “I’m with Whitney/Strong and I support SB 244.”

There is no time to wait! Thank you for your help.

 

Whitney Austin

Stop the Bleed and Why It Matters

When Waller and I began discussing what we could do to fight gun violence while in the hospital following the shooting, partnering to host Stop the Bleed sessions wasn’t even on our radar. We were solely focused on preventing more gun deaths.


Fast forward nearly 5 months, and that goal of reducing gun deaths, still stands paramount. In fact, when we release our strategic priorities in the coming month, our commitment to that goal will be evident. However, the value of this partnership is significant and after learning more about Stop the Bleed, it became an obvious first step for Whitney/Strong.


I was introduced to this program by UC Hospital during my second surgery following the shooting. As Trauma One Centers, both UC and UofL Hospitals are focused on injury prevention programs, one of which is Stop the Bleed. I was surprised to learn that the top three types of trauma in Cincinnati and Louisville are car accidents, gun violence, and falls. With Stop the Bleed, both hospitals provide free and empowering training that teaches laypeople how to stop bleeding caused by trauma and save lives.


I’ve had several “goosebump” moments since my introduction to this program.

  1. As soon as I moved from the revolving door to the flagpole on 9/6, a tourniquet was applied to my right arm. Lucky me! Not only did law enforcement pull me out of danger, but they knew the simple life-saving steps taught to them through Stop the Bleed.

  2. After participating in a training session last month, I learned you can only stop bleeding that occurs in extremities... think arms and legs. Lucky me! The majority of bullets hit my right arm - perfect for applying a tourniquet!

And one “heart drop” moment.

  1. Stop the Bleed originated after the heartbreaking Sandy Hook school shooting. One trauma surgeon found himself distraught learning the loss of life could have been reduced had first responders known the simple life-saving techniques.

Needless to say, this training is important to me. So, we will fight gun violence but first, let’s empower each other to save lives!

For more information and to register for the Louisville and Cincinnati workshops visit https://www.whitneystrong.org/workshops/

If you cannot attend due to schedule conflicts or a session is booked, please follow these instructions to request a free session for your employer, place of warship, school, community group, etc.

Cincinnati: Contact Regina Menninger at regina.menninger@uchealth.com

Louisville: Visit uoflhospital.org/Stop-Bleed 

Thank you,

Whitney Austin


Surgery Update

On Dr. Martin Luther King Junior Day I was scheduled for a tendon transfer, essentially moving my index finger tendon to my thumb. This move was necessary to fix my limp left thumb, an injury that wasn’t immediately obvious after the shooting.

One of the bullets entered and exited my left forearm, bruising my bone and leaving little room for my thumb tendon to thrive. Over time it ruptured but luckily for me, the nerve damage I had sustained masked the pain.

That same nerve pain has proved problematic in other ways, with even simple things like my children grabbing my forearm, leading to what feels like an electric current reverberating down my arm. Monday’s surgery ended up addressing both the limp thumb and my nerve damage.

I’ve undergone three surgeries at this point and every time the recovery is different. This time I am in a good amount of pain because of the nerve work. In fact, I will venture to say that nerve work is the most painful recovery yet. Still, I am encouraged to have a wonderful team of medical professionals surrounding me with great ideas and solutions for moving forward.

Once I’m up for it, I’ll get back to physical therapy on my right arm, physical therapy on my left hand, and then a bit of “wait and see” for the nerve pain in my left arm.

I am still filled with gratitude that I am here! While I am not perfect at relishing in my gratitude, I do have plenty of moments where I pinch myself thinking about the blessings of family and living a life of purpose through Whitney/Strong. Thank you to everyone for the support and prayers through this latest surgery.

I look forward to providing you with updates on Whitney/Strong again soon.

Fun fact: When repairing my nerve, the surgeon found a good amount of blue fiber in my arm. It must have come from my clutch that was retained as evidence by law-enforcement. When I received that clutch as a gift from my favorite make-up store in Chicago, Mojo Spa, I never imagined it would enter my body months later. So absurd.

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The morning of September 6th

The morning of September 6, was a normal Thursday morning for me. I had just settled into my day at work when I got a phone call from my brother-in-law. It was 9:32 a.m. He doesn’t call me often, and I looked at the incoming call thinking it odd that he was calling me at this time. So I picked up.

Right when I answered, he said to me very calmly, “Sit down. I have some terrible news.”  In the nanosecond before he told me what the terrible news was, I immediately thought something happened to my parents – stroke, heart attack, maybe someone was in a car wreck? But never did I expect, “Whitney is in Cincinnati and has been shot multiple times in her chest.”

I can’t remember exactly what was said in the next few seconds. He mentioned he talked to her for a minute, that she was being taken to UC Medical, he didn’t know what happened, and he didn’t know the extent of her injuries. He had already talked to my parents and everyone was on their way to Cincinnati. He didn’t know much. My mind starting racing…to the worst case scenario of course.

What happened? I thought maybe she was mugged. I called my husband and told him what I knew and he immediately left work to come get me to make the drive to Cincinnati. My co-workers who heard me in hysterics, came into my office to try and console me. We tried to figure out what happened. I went to Cincinnati local news websites, and it was the top story. An active shooter at Fifth Third headquarters.

It was like an out of body experience watching the news. They talked of multiple fatalities. Was one of them Whitney? It had been 20 minutes since I talked to Waller. Could she have died since they talked? For whatever reason, I kept thinking of Princess Diana. I remember that she had spoken after her car wreck, and then still died. So knowing that Whitney had talked to Waller wasn’t very reassuring to me.

The next two hours were hell on earth. I went from extreme optimism about her being okay, to imagining her in emergency surgery and dying on the operating table. I thought how ironic it was that this was happening to her. She was passionate about gun safety for our children prior to this, and now she was a victim of a mass shooting.

Waller called as soon as he arrived…he was the first one there. She was going to be ok! The range of emotions I went through in those two hours, were the most extreme I’m sure I’ll ever experience. From utter despair to the purest joy on earth.

I am so happy that she is the one that is here and leading the charge for Whitney/Strong. And that we’re not doing it in her honor like the parents of Sandy Hook. We are the lucky ones who get to fight alongside Whitney. She is tenacious, smart, relentless, and the drive behind her is unparalleled to anything I have experienced. She is surrounding herself with people who share her passion and who will not stop until something changes. Her last three months have been spent pouring over data on guns, on conference calls with experts, meeting with legislatures that can help her platform, building her team, and occasionally taking care of herself while nursing her way back to health. She knows the road to change is long, and she’s in it for the long haul. She won’t lose steam, or rest until there is true change. The team at Whitney/Strong won’t either. And those of you who have joined us, I hope you won’t either.

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Are You Discouraged with the Lack of Progress on Gun Violence?

I’ll start out with honesty. Yes, I am discouraged like so many of you, but maybe not for the same reasons. (And I promise this post won’t leave you depressed, so keep reading.)

My guess is that you are discouraged we continue to see mass shootings in our news feed on a weekly basis. Discouraged that politicians’ inflexibility has led to a stalemate. Discouraged with the lack of control you have over keeping your loved ones safe.

I feel all those things, but after 2.5 months of pouring over articles and research on gun violence, I am discouraged at a much deeper level.

The goal of Whitney/Strong is to reduce gun violence through responsible gun ownership. We will consider many solutions and champion those that are both, impactful and supported by the majority. However, as I dig deeper, it is proving to be very difficult to find the evidence necessary to conclude which solutions would be materially impactful. And as a result, discouragement starts to set in.


Quick history lesson....


While we shouldn’t blame the lack of evidence and data solely on the Dickey Amendment, it has certainly played a major role in the lack of federal research on gun violence. In case you are unfamiliar, here is a Cliff Notes version from Wikipedia:

In United States politics, the Dickey Amendment is a provision first inserted as a rider into the 1996 federal government omnibus spending bill which mandated that "none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control." In the same spending bill, Congress earmarked $2.6 million from the CDC's budget, the exact amount that had previously been allocated to the agency for firearms research the previous year, for traumatic brain injury-related research.

Many commentators have described this amendment as a "ban" on gun violence research by the CDC.

Lack of research is a massive problem. Here’s a hypothetical example to make it more digestible. Suppose the majority support a ban on the sale of assault rifles. These weapons are often tied to the deadliest mass shootings in our country’s history. But then imagine for a moment that a thorough research project was conducted by an unbiased research organization, and the study concluded that banning the sale of assault rifles would not reduce gun deaths. And why? Because the data confirms very few assault rifles used criminally are purchased legally. So while this is a hypothetical study, it helps articulate the need for robust and unbiased research so that we are not fighting blind.

All hope is not lost. First, and pulled directly from this article (https://www.rand.org/news/press/2018/05/31.html), the RAND Corporation has been selected to help oversee a philanthropic fund that will support high-quality research on issues related to gun violence. The National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research is a creation of the Houston-based Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF), which has pledged $20 million to the effort and will seek an additional $30 million from other philanthropic groups. Over the next five years, research sponsored by the collaborative will seek data-driven answers on the causes and patterns of gun-related violence in the United States. Based on scientific evidence, the work will help policymakers craft evidence-based policies to reduce gun violence.

Second, and this is where I start to diverge from my product management roots. In business, I didn’t design products that only one person would use - it wasn’t efficient or profitable. With WhitneyStrong, any life that is saved because of the actions we take would be considered a success. Incremental change, aka baby steps, are what is needed in this hyper-partisan environment and I’m OK closing the gap slowly but surely.

So as we await the good stuff from our brilliant researcher friends over the next five years, let’s make a difference now! Let’s bootstrap whatever research and data we do have and start closing the gap.

So do not be discouraged. The quote below gave me motivation after an otherwise discouraging day. I hope it does the same for you.

“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”

Helen Keller