Royal Oak to review suicides at Target Sports shooting range

A Royal Oak official is raising questions after learning that two people committed suicide and a third person attempted suicide in the past five months at a local shooting range.

In all three incidents, the victims rented handguns at Target Sports gun shop and used them moments later to shoot themselves.

Commissioner Peggy Goodwin requested that city leaders discuss the incidents at tonight’s City Commission meeting.

Target Sports owner Ray Jihad said he won’t attend, believing he wouldn’t be treated fairly. But Jihad made a recent change in his rental policy that he said would deter future suicides.

As customers browsed Friday among the hundreds of guns and knives for sale, including a top-of-the-line assault rifle for $2,999, Jihad pointed out new flyers he had posted: “Due to a change in our insurance, all firearm rentals must be done in a group of two or more individuals. We apologize for any inconvenience.”

Jihad said that Target Sports is not the only shooting range to have suicides, and industry experts confirmed that. His move to limit rentals to groups is smart, according to consultants with the National Association of Shooting Ranges, an industry trade group.

But because suicide rates nationwide have been rising steadily, more should be done, said Goodwin. She said she is still hurting from her father’s suicide decades ago.

Since 2001, seven people have walked into the metal-fronted Target Sports building on Woodward Avenue, rented guns and intentionally shot themselves — five died, according to Royal Oak police.

In September, a man rented two guns, then used both to commit suicide. Three months later, as shoppers chose holiday gifts, a 23-year-old woman died after shooting herself at the range, according to police reports.

In the most recent incident, on Jan. 17, a man shot himself in the chin, then ran out of the building. He was located by a police tracking dog and found to have non-life-threatening wounds, a police report said.

Suicides on shooting ranges “happen with an alarming degree of frequency,” but no statistics are kept, said Ed Santos, owner of Center Target Sports in Post Falls, Idaho.

“I’m aware of one range that has had seven (suicides) over a number of years” near Phoenix, said Santos, who is a safety consultant for the shooting ranges association, based in Newtown, Conn.

Mental health experts advise that gun shop employees be trained to watch for customers who are despondent, agitated or acting strangely, but the approach isn’t foolproof.

“I’m aware of one case (of suicide) just recently where the person purchased multiple boxes of ammo and even discussed taking a future class at the range” before striding to a target range and committing suicide, Santos said.

Still, Santos said he thinks Royal Oak officials are over-reacting.

“No one in the industry wants this to happen on their range.”

Target Sports’ new policy — requiring that anyone renting a gun be with at least one other person — is a good move, said Dennis Rozema, a Birmingham therapist.

“Two people aren’t going to go there together with the plan to have one person commit suicide,” Rozema said.

Rozema is the author of a new book, “Behind the Mask,” aimed at creating awareness about suicide-prone adolescents. The book includes the journal entries of a teen who willed her journal to Rozema before killing herself, he said.

Having people rent guns in groups of at least two “puts one more roadblock out there” for someone who is suicidal, Rozema said.

Experts from the shooting range industry said that having a suicide occur at a shooting center was unheard of until about a dozen years ago. It was just about that time that the nation’s overall suicide rate began increasing — averaging 2% to 3% higher per year in suicides per 1,000 people, said Bob Gebbia, executive director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in New York.

Anything that makes it more difficult to rent a gun will reduce suicides at ranges, Gebbia said.

Often, he said, the wish to commit suicide “is a very impulsive feeling, and it can pass.”