ORLANDO, Fla. — Shoot Straight, Florida’s largest independent gun-shop chain, has stopped renting guns to prevent its eight Florida ranges from becoming suicide parlors.
Khaled Akkawi, founder of the Apopka-based chain, made the decision last month after the latest suicides at one his gun ranges.
“We’ve had enough,” Akkawi said Friday. “They’ve been increasing real fast and the one common denominator — everyone is done with a rental gun.”
Shoot Straight joins a growing number of gun ranges across Central Florida that have restricted or prohibited gun rentals to stem the deaths.
While no agency tracks gun-range suicides, there have been at least 11 of them in greater Orlando since 2009, according to Orlando Sentinel reporting on the deaths. All were committed with rental guns.
Oak Ridge Gun Range, the scene of the latest suicide last week in Orange County, changed its policy after a previous death more than a year ago. Oak Ridge is now attempting to identify customers who would be a suicide risk.
“We don’t rent to any white male Florida resident who comes in alone,” said owner John Harvey. “In the past 30 years, we’ve never had a suicide that wasn’t a white male Florida resident who came in alone. They don’t want to mess up their families’ homes, so they do it here.”
In the latest of five suicides over 30 years at Harvey’s range, a man went to Oak Ridge on Jan. 2 saying he was waiting for his two adult sons, both regular customers, Harvey said.
After waiting 20 minutes, he asked and received permission to shoot by himself until his sons arrive on the range where other customers were practicing. He then shot himself in the head.
“That won’t happen again,” said Harvey.
The first major Central Florida gun range to ban rentals was Gander Mountain Academy, which adopted the policy along with range safety officers on the gun range at all times when it opened in 2011 in Lake Mary. All of the outdoor sporting goods company’s six gun ranges across the nation prohibit rentals.
“We have a perfect record of safety and plan to continue to do that,” Gander Mountain Academy’s national director Chris Juelich said in a written statement this week.
Local gun range owners said they have no way to check customers’ mental health records, and state law does not permit criminal background checks on rental customers to weed out convicted felons.
In addition to the tragedy of each death and distress for gun range employees and customers present when they happen, Harvey said each suicide costs about $5,000 in lost business and expenses required to reopen.
Some of the only research on gun-range suicides has been conducted at Harvard School for Public Health by Catherine Barber, director of the Injury Control Research Center, who found only 51 gun range suicides out of about 30,000 shooting suicides reported by 16 states from 2005 through 2010.
“It’s a very rare occurrence,” Barber said of the gun range deaths.
Florida was not among the 16 states that are part of her research.
Restricting or banning rentals has a significant economic effect on gun ranges, where the majority of renters don’t own firearms. And about 20 percent of the renters are gun owners who want to “test drive” new models before deciding which to buy, according to range owners.
Akkawi, who identified himself as the country’s largest volume gun dealer with about 100,000 annual sales, said he had no idea yet what the ban would cost him but characterized it as “significant.” He temporarily banned rentals in 2009 after a suicide and murder-suicide at his range in Casselberry.
Each rental typically costs about $50 for the gun, ammunition, targets and an hour of range time, the range owners said.
“I would say about 90 percent of first-time gun buyers take advantage of the opportunity to rent a gun or two before making a purchase,” said Jon Kirson, who opened the Orlando Gun Club in late 2012 with a “buddy” policy requiring at least two adults to rent a gun.
Requiring two or more adults reduces the likelihood that someone will commit suicide in front of friends or family members, according to Kirson. Other ranges have similar policies, including East Orange Shooting Sports in Winter Park.
“I’m a risk averse person and I run my business accordingly,” Kirson said. “We probably lose some business but…safety takes priority.”