Salt Lake County libraries give away free gun locks to promote gun safety, suicide prevention

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Leslie Schow, a Herriman librarian, talks about the gun lock program at the Salt Lake County library system's Herriman branch on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018.

Herriman • The librarian says it starts with a question, like the person can’t quite believe it’s true: “I heard you’re giving out gun locks?”

After that, it’s simple: The librarian hands one over, or two or even more. The hard part is trying to keep up with demand.

Salt Lake County Library Services’ popular free gun lock program got its start in reaction to a tragedy.

Five Herriman High School students died by suicide last year. That spurred the city to offer a series of Question, Persuade and Refer classes to better equip attendees to help others get through mental health crises. It was part of the Healthy Herriman program.

Leslie Schow offered to host the classes at the city’s branch of the Salt Lake County Library, where she is a manager. Then a volunteer brought three cases of free gun locks and asked Schow if the library could pass them out.

“We will never know what kind of impact this is actually having on the community,” Schow said. “But we do know from studies that have been done that suicide by gun is the most common form. And if we can delay that action long enough to get help to the person by having a gun lock on the gun, it will be helpful — because we also know, especially with teenagers, suicide tends to be a more impulsive action.”

Utah ranks fifth in the nation in suicide deaths, and a study shows half of those deaths are by firearm.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A gun lock that is given to library patrons at no charge at the Salt Lake County library system's Herriman branch on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018.

Schow shared a few of the free gun locks with other County Library branches. And that got people talking.

“So we thought, why not expand it systemwide?” said Liz Sollis, marketing and communications manager for Salt Lake County Library Services and a member of the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition. The group reached out to the Utah Department of Public Safety and secured a donation of 800 gun locks.

“We thought, ‘Well, that should be enough, and we’ll see how it goes,’ ” Sollis said. “That was so naive. It was not enough.”

The library announced it had gun locks available — through emails to cardholders and news releases sent in mid-November — and within a day, librarians had handed out every single lock.

One man waited 45 minutes for Sollis to bring extra gun locks after the Whitmore branch ran out.

“Everyone he knows has guns; everyone he knows should have gun locks,” Sollis said he told her.

Since then, the County Library has secured another 500 gun locks, which have been divvied up among the library’s 16 branches and are available as long as they last.

The cable-style gun locks work on most firearms. The cable is tied through the barrel or action of a gun and secured by a padlock to keep the gun from being fired.

Anyone can get a lock, no library card or signature required. At the Herriman Library, gun locks are stored at the circulation desk. “It’s the first point of contact for the patrons, and we don’t want to make it difficult,” Schow said. “We want to make it as easy as possible.”

A librarian asks each person just one question: Where did you hear about the program? Librarians also keep track of how many gun locks a person asked for compared with how many they were given (one man wanted 20, but the library didn’t have enough, so he got five).

The most difficult part of the program so far, Sollis said, has been making sure there are enough locks to keep up with the demand.

“To me, it’s a great opportunity to provide education about why we’re doing it,” Sollis said. “Our staff are very, very focused on the health and well-being of their patrons. Conversations can be had if they’re open to it.”

Librarians are all equipped with resources to refer visitors who have questions about gun safety and suicide prevention.

The Department of Public Safety also provides its own free gun lock program. According to its website, people can pick up one free lock per person at the Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s Taylorsville office.

“If you have firearms, have a gun lock. It’s a prevention tool,” Sollis said.

“It’s a prevention tool that’s not saying, ‘You shouldn’t own guns,’ ” Schow added. “It’s saying, ‘If you own guns, do it safely.’ ”

Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts is asked to call the 24-Hour National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Utah also has crisis lines statewide, and the SafeUT app offers immediate crisis intervention services for youth and a confidential tip program.