Volunteer Profile: Following his heart

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Thomas May is a member of the Safer Homes Coalition and a volunteer Community Organizer with Forefront Suicide Prevention.

I grew up in a rural Montana town where firearms were a part of everyday life. At the age of 10, I completed the required hunter safety class and always looked forward to the yearly grouse hunts with my .410 shotgun. I remember the first time my parents took me to the gun range to shoot a 30-06. My brother placed a thumb tack in the middle of a paper plate about 50 yards from me. I remember hearing someone say, “Don’t put your eye too close to the scope” and “Just squeeze the trigger.” It seemed like a hundred times, I heard that. I steadied my gun and squeezed the trigger. To my surprise I hit the plate right where the thumb tack held it to the tree and watched that plate fall to the ground. I don’t know if my shot was pure luck or if I was a natural, but I loved everything about the experience.

My family moved to a larger town in Eastern Washington when I was 12 and I did not have many experiences with firearms after that until I started working for a firearms retailer when I was 35. In the 1980s when I took my hunter’s safety course and even in 2007 when I started working in the firearms industry, I often heard someone say, “Treat every gun like it is loaded” and “Just squeeze the trigger.” But I never heard the word suicide mentioned (and definitely not a hundred times).

I first learned about the Safer Homes, Suicide Aware campaign in April 2016 and contacted Forefront Suicide Prevention about my interest in joining the task force. I explained my background, including the fact that I am a suicide attempt survivor. I believe that talking about my experience with mental illness and suicide can give others permission to talk about their experience. Maybe together we can help end the suffering caused by suicide.

The Safer Homes Coalition has brought together those of us with firearms experience and those of us with experience around suicide. We each have something to bring to this conversation, and there is not a wrong side or right side. What we all had in common the first day we met as a task force was that we recognized suicide is literally killing our families, our communities, our state and our nation – and if we listened to each other we could make progress on finding a solution to the problem.

While I was working the Safer Homes booth at the Spokane Gun show, I remember a gentleman wearing a leather holster with a Ruger Blackhawk revolver studying our tables from afar. I called out to him we were offering free lockboxes and medication disposal kits. He didn’t seem too interested in a lock box or a medication disposal kit, so I complimented him on the color of the leather of his holster. We talked for a while and before long he offered to let me handle his firearm. I don’t know what it was about me that helped this man make the determination that I was not some left-winged fanatic who was trying to take his guns away, but someone he could trust to allow me to handle his firearm, but it happened. I explained the purpose of the Safer Homes booth and at one point the fact I was a suicide attempt survivor came up. I stood and spoke with this man for over 20 minutes and he shared with me that his brother had taken his life by suicide and he rarely had talked about it.